EXPLAINED: What is Austria’s ‘tick vaccine’ and should you take it?

Austrian states have already started vaccination campaigns against FSME, the tick-borne encephalitis (TBE). So what is the disease, and should you get vaccinated?

EXPLAINED: What is Austria's 'tick vaccine' and should you take it?
Ticks are common in all parts of Austria, and can carry diseases. (Photo by Alfred Kenneally on Unsplash)

Austrian states are announcing vaccination campaigns ahead of what is known as “the tick season” in the country. One of the main actions is for the so-called FSME vaccine, also known as the tick-borne encephalitis (TBE) vaccine, or “tick vaccination” (Zecken-Schutzimpfung).

But what is this disease, and do you really need to get the vaccination?

According to Professor Ursula Kunze, with the Centre for Public Health at MedUni Wien, the infection can cause a very dangerous disease, and Austria is endemic to the virus. 

“Austria is a high endemic country, the low number of cases is only due to the high vaccination rate”, she told The Local. 

Tick-borne encephalitis (TBE)

In German, the disease is known as Frühsommermeningoencephalitis, something like “early summer meningoencephalitis”.

TBE is a viral infection transmitted by the bite of infected ticks. It causes inflammation of the brain and meninges. Symptoms can develop in up to 28 days and include high fever, headache, nausea, and vomiting. The disease can progress to more severe cases.

The virus is present in Austria and other Central and Eastern Europe countries. There is also some presence in China and Japan.

There is no treatment or cure for the disease, but the symptoms can be alleviated.

READ ALSO: Seven hazards to avoid when you’re outside in Austria

How common is the virus in Austria?

Ticks carrying the TBE virus can be found in almost all continental Europe, particularly Austria. Therefore, a TBE vaccination is recommended by UK health officials for those who are moving to Austria.

The authorities also recommend the vaccination for those who are only visiting but will visit or work in forested areas – including tourists planning camping or hiking. The main affected areas, they add, are Tyrol and Upper Austria.

But “the whole country is TBEv endemic”, Prof. Kunze highlighted. “Ticks can be everywhere and the endemic regions are changing and expanding also to higher altitudes”, she explained. 

It is worth remembering that all areas with vegetation can have infected ticks, including gardens, parks, and meadows. In addition, the animals are usually more active from early spring to late autumn – which is why vaccination campaigns typically start in April.

READ ALSO: Six of the best things to do in spring in Vienna

Before the start of the major vaccination campaigns, TBE was the most common viral infectious disease with encephalitis in Austria, according to the country’s Health Ministry.

At that time, 300 to 700 cases of illness (an incidence rate of about four to nine cases per 100,000 people) occurred per year. Despite high vaccination rates of over 80 per cent, a total of 1,188 laboratory-confirmed illnesses and 20 deaths by TBE were reported in Austria from 2010 to 2020.

In 2020, the number of reported TBE cases that had become infected in Austria and were hospitalized was 216, and three people died. In 2020, 13 of the people affected were children.

The government assumes that more cases took place as more people preferred outdoor activities due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Additionally, as climate changes and winter becomes less cold, with spring temperatures arriving earlier in the year, Austria’s “tick season” is getting longer.

READ ALSO: How will climate change impact Austria?

How can I avoid getting bitten?

There are several tips to avoid getting bitten and reduce the risk of contracting TBE (and other tick-borne diseases).

Cover your skin when walking outdoors and tuck your pants into your socks to avoid exposing skin. An insect repellent on clothes and skin (with DEET products) is also very helpful. Another recommendation is to wear light-coloured clothing, which makes it easier to spot and remove ticks.

Even if you get bitten, spotting and removing the ticks quickly and safely can help prevent contamination if the animal carries any pathogens.

However, Prof. Kunze reinforces that these measures are not safe enough: “the only protection is vaccination”, she added.

What about the vaccine?

Austria applies a three-dose vaccination scheme for children and adults. The first dose should be given after the first birthday (or at any time in the case of adults). Then, depending on the vaccination, the second dose should be taken four weeks after the first one and the third one from five to nine months.

READ ALSO: Why is German-speaking Europe lagging on Covid vaccines?

Boosters should be taken every five years, according to the Vienna vaccination service.

The protective effect of the vaccines begins approximately two weeks after the second dose, and vaccination protection is almost 100%.

How can I get the vaccine?

Several states have vaccination campaigns ongoing, but the vaccine is not free. Each dose can cost up to € 26.35, and in some cases, there is a vaccination fee of € 10.65.

The vaccine can also be bought in pharmacies and administered by general practitioners – some also have the vaccine in their practice, so you don’t have to buy it.

To get the vaccination, just schedule an appointment with your doctor or a vaccination centre. You should bring your e-card (if available), a vaccination book (if available), a photo ID (such as a passport), and wear an FFP2 mask.

“Get vaccinated, regardless of your place of residence or the duration of your stay. When you get in contact with nature, there is a possible infection risk”, professor Kunze warned. 

Useful vocabulary

Impfaktion – vaccination campaign
Frühsommermeningoencephalitis (FSME) – tick-borne encephalitis (TBE)
Impfstoff – vaccination
Grundimmunisierung – basic immunisation
Impftermin – vaccination appointment

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More pay and longer holidays: How Austria hopes to attract 75,000 new nurses

The Federal Government unveiled a package looking to attract more than 75,000 new workers to the nursing and care professions - including people from abroad.

More pay and longer holidays: How Austria hopes to attract 75,000 new nurses

Austria has unveiled a €1 billion reform package to improve working conditions for health sector professionals.

In a press release this Thursday, Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) said that the package would include higher salaries for nurses.

“There will be massive measures to make the nursing profession more attractive”, the minister said.

For 2022 and 2023, the government will offer a total of €520 million as a monthly salary bonus for the professionals, Rauch said. This should last initially for at least two years until other measures start taking effect.

Training for the career will also receive investments, according to the minister. There will be a federal training subsidy of at least €600 per month.

In addition, a nursing scholarship for those switching (or switching back) to the nursing profession of up to €1,400 will be funded by the Austrian Employment Agency AMS.

READ ALSO: Everything foreigners need to know about the Austrian healthcare system

As a measure to protect workers and keep them from turning to other professions, the government explained that all those older than 43 years old will receive an extra week of paid holidays. Additionally, all employees in inpatient long-term care will receive two hours of time credit per night shift.

​​Among the more than 20 measures that the Ministry will detail in the coming days are steps to increase help for those in need of care and of relatives that care for their families, according to the statements given in the press release.

Caring relatives will receive a family bonus of €1,500 per year if they provide most of the care at home and are themselves insured or co-insured. The employment in 24-hour care is also to be “made more attractive” – but details are still pending.

Bringing in international help

The government is also turning outside of Austria and the European Union to attract more professionals.

In the future, nurses who complete vocational training will receive “significantly more” points in the process to access the so-called Rot Weiss Rot (RWR) residence permit. They will also increase the points given for older professionals, facilitating the entry of nurses from 40 to 50 years old.

RWR applicants need to reach a certain threshold of points based on criteria including age and education to get the permit.

READ ALSO: How Austria is making it easier for non-EU workers to get residence permits

The recognition of training acquired abroad will be significantly simplified, accelerated and debureaucratised, the government promises. And nurses will be able to work as nursing assistants until the formal recognition of their foreign qualifications is completed.

Long-needed reform

“People in care work have long deserved these improvements”, Rauch said.

The government expects the package to create more than 75,000 new workers to fill the thousands of open positions in the sector by 2030.

Green Party leader Sigrid Maurer stated that the measures will be an essential step towards gender equality. “After all, it is mainly women who work in the care professions, especially taking care of relatives at home”.

READ ALSO: Austria’s former health minister becomes best-selling author

The government announcement comes as several protests are scheduled to take place throughout Austria this Thursday, which is also Tag der Pflege (Day of Care).

Health and care sector professionals are taking to the streets to demand better hours and pay and protest against staff shortage, overload, and burn-out.

“We have been calling for better conditions and better pay for years. Thousands of beds are now empty because we don’t have enough staff. In Styria, about 3,000 of a total of 13,000 beds in the nursing sector are currently closed,” Beatrix Eiletz, head of the works council of Styrian Volkshilfe told the daily Der Standard.

READ ALSO: How Covid absences are disrupting Austrian hospitals, schools and transport

It is not uncommon that nurses will quit their jobs and move to completely different professions, thereby increasing the gap, the report added.

The problem is an old one in Austria – but it has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.