Should all Australians get free flu vaccines?

flu vaccination: the virus close-up in blue

Stakeholders are calling for the flu vaccination to be made available without cost to all Australians, including children

Bastian Seidel, Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president, says in The Australian that if the Government subsidised such a free vaccination program, the $250 million spent would significantly offset the cost of death and illness from the disease.

“Every year we have the same story; a new flu outbreak, the public hospitals and ambulances so stretched they can’t cope any more and, on average, 3000 deaths every year from influenza, 18,000 hospital admissions and 350,000 Australians affected by the flu,” he said.

Dr Paul Van Buynder, Chairman of the Australian Immunisation Coalition, renewed a call for the influenza vaccine to be added to the National Immunisation Program for children.

“We think, particularly with the strong data that came out of the UK this year – they gave free flu vaccines to children and found this also prevented flu in older people, as they didn’t give it to their grandparents – if we’d had a number of our children vaccinated against influenza, we wouldn’t have seen the sort of numbers we had this year,” he told the AJP.

“We think it’s really important that all children be offered flu vaccine.”

He says that because the vaccine is not subsidised, even parents who are supportive of vaccination do not realise the significance of not vaccinating.

On Sunday, Victoria’s Minister for Health Jill Hennessy announced that selected private hospitals had agreed to accept public patients who need to be taken to hospital by ambulance, a move which Dr Seidel said would be more expensive than simply extending free vaccination to everyone.

Ambulance Victoria will play a key role in assessing patients, monitoring pressure points in public hospital emergency departments and deciding when it is appropriate to transport patients to private hospital emergency departments.

The temporary move is part of a longstanding arrangement, which in the past has seen private Intensive Care Units utilised in times of peak demand, and private hospital operating theatres take on extra work during elective surgery blitzes.

The state’s six Primary Health Networks, GPs, pharmacists, and key phone advice lines are also collaborating to support public hospital emergency departments and Ambulance Victoria to manage surging demand due to the current spike in flu notifications.

Hospitals have embarked on active social media campaigning to encourage people with less severe injuries and illnesses to seek advice and treatment through their family doctor, a pharmacist – including Victoria’s 24/7 Supercare Pharmacies – or NURSE-ON-CALL.

Dr Van Buynder told the AJP that the flu season has finally peaked, with a decline in numbers this week.

“We’re on our way down, but there’s still a fair bit of flu around,” he says.

The severity of the 2017 flu season has seen a number of cases highlighted in mainstream media, which may help Australians understand the seriousness of flu, he says:

  • Eight-year-old Rosie Andersen suffered a cardiac arrest and died at her Melbourne home, prompting Victoria’s deputy chief health officer Dr Brett Sutton to also suggest making flu vaccination free for children.
  • Thirty-year old Ben Ihlow died of the flu on what should have been his first Father’s Day this month.
  • New mum Sarah Hawthorn is in an induced coma, unaware that she has given birth, after she contracted influenza A, pneumonia and other complications.
  • Rhiannon Gillespie, the mother of four-year-old Savannah Gillespie who nearly died of influenza A and a bacterial infection, has urged parents to vaccinate their children against the disease.
  • An elderly person has died in a Mt Gambier aged care facility after 23 residents came down with the flu; two facilities in the area are reportedly in lockdown.
  • Flu-related deaths in aged care facilities have now reached 21 in Tasmania, the ABC reports.

Dr Van Buynder says he supports the Health Minister’s call for all aged workers to have a mandatory flu vaccination each year.

“We should go the extra step and make it mandatory in hospitals as well,” he says. “There’s just as many vulnerable people in hospitals as there are in aged care.”

He said that in the leadup to next year’s flu season, pharmacists should stress the importance of flu vaccination for all, bearing in mind that some of the people struck down this year were young, healthy adults like Mr Ihlow.

“Some people who’ve been healthy have been very unlucky this year,” he says.

“And if a pregnant woman walks in looking for folic acid, pharmacists should make sure they’ve had their influenza shot.

“Pharmacists can often identify people we do badly with [in terms of coverage]… that’s the people with chronic disease,” Dr Van Buynder says.

“So if they’re coming in for diabetes medication, if they’re coming in for asthma medication, pharmacists should make the effort to make sure they’ve had their flu shot.”

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