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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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HEALTH

Reader question: How to get a flu vaccination in Austria?

Austrian doctors and virologists have warned of a particularly strong flu wave this winter and recommend that people get vaccinated. Here's how to get the shot in each province.

Reader question: How to get a flu vaccination in Austria?

Austrian experts have said there would likely be an exceptionally high wave of the flu after hardly any cases were registered in the past two years. The measures against Covid-19 prevented infections with Sars-CoV-2 – and curbed the spread of influenza and other cold viruses.

This is about to change this season as Covid measures were relaxed and airborne viruses spread again, they said.

In principle, the influenza vaccination protects against symptomatic infection for four months: “About 80 percent for H1 viruses, about 50 to 60 percent for H3 strains and 60 to 70 percent for B viruses,” said Monika Redlberger-Fritz, a virologist from Med-Uni Vienna.

READ ALSO: Colds and flu: What to do and say if you get sick in Austria

She added: “But even with vaccine breakthroughs, you are still very well protected against complications, hospitalisations and death.”

Unlike the Covid-19 vaccination, the flu jab is not organised by the federal government but by the respective provinces, which file a report only after the flu season. In every province, the vaccine is free for children, but many ask adults to pay for a fee or get it from their doctors. In Vienna, the flu vaccination is free for everyone.

Here is how to get the vaccine in each province in campaigns carried out with the participation or knowledge of the government – companies and private insurance institutions can also start their own vaccination campaigns.

Vienna

Vienna offers free flu vaccinations for every resident. You can register online with the impfservice.wien or visit one of the centres that accept people without appointments (for example, the Austria Center Vienna). 

All that is necessary is for you to bring a document with your picture and wear an FFP2 mask. If you have an e-card and a vaccination passport, bring those with you as well. There is also a form to fill out, but those are available on-site.  

Lower Austria

The flu vaccine is free for children from six months to 15-years-old, and they can get the shot from established medical specialists. For those who are older, it is possible to receive the vaccination from a registered specialist, company medical service or from their employer, but they may be charged for it.

Residents of elderly and care homes get the vaccination free of charge in the facility where they live.

You can check more about the vaccination with your family doctor and paediatrician.

Upper Austria

Children aged six months to 15 can get the vaccine for free with their general practitioners and paediatricians. However, you may need to get the vaccine components at the pharmacy with a voucher and register with your doctor.

Older people can get the vaccination directly at vaccination sites in their district for €15. Residents of elderly and care homes get the vaccination free of charge in the facility where they live.

Styria

In Styria, children from six months to age 15 get the vaccine for free with paediatricians or public health services of their district authorities.  Older adults can get it from the public health service for €16 or €27 if they are older than 65. 

Residents of elderly and care homes get the vaccination free of charge in the facility where they live.

You can check more about the vaccination with your family doctor and paediatrician.

Carinthia

Children (from six months to 15 years) can get the vaccine for free in doctor’s offices or public health centres. You can check HERE for more information and register. For older people, the price is €22, though prices could be different if you go to your doctor instead of a vaccination centre.

Residents of elderly and care homes get the vaccination free of charge in the facility where they live.

Burgenland

Children aged six months to 15 years can get the vaccine free in pharmacies and with their physicians. At-risk patients older than that can also get free vaccines, but only while supplies last. 

Otherwise, buying and paying for the vaccine in a pharmacy or with your general practitioner is possible. There are also free vaccinations in elderly and care homes. 

You can check more about the vaccination with your family doctor and paediatrician.

Salzburg

Children from six months to 15 years can get the vaccine free with any doctor offering it. You can check with your family doctor or paediatrician. Anyone over 15 that wants to get it needs to buy it at a pharmacy (prices vary depending on the vaccine used) and can ask their family doctor. 

There are free vaccinations for residents of elderly and care homes. 

You can read more about the vaccination offer in Salzburg HERE.

Tyrol

The flu vaccine is free for children from six months to the age of 15 years, and they can get it directly from their doctor (a general practitioner or a paediatrician, for example). For those older, it’s possible to vaccinate with their family doctors, but prices vary for the product and pharmacies and the doctor’s fee. 

Residents of elderly and nursing homes aged 60 and over get the vaccination free of charge.

You can read more about the vaccination offer in Tyrol HERE.

Vorarlberg

In Vorarlberg, children aged six months to 15 years can get the vaccine free with their doctors. Adults can also get it from general practitioner’s offices but will need to pay variable costs (depending on doctor fees and which vaccine they choose).

There are free vaccinations for residents of elderly and care homes. 

You can read more about the vaccination offer in Vorarlberg HERE.

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