Budget vaccine blamed for record flu season

vaccine vaccination needle

Immunisation Coalition chair Professor Paul Van Buynder has suggested that a cheap version of the flu vaccine may have influenced 2017’s “disaster year”

This year’s iteration of the flu vaccine was used even though it does not work well in the elderly, public health physician Professor Van Buynder told News Corp on Monday.

However in a statement he later criticised mainstream media coverage of the story, clarifying that the vaccine was the best Australia had to work with.

According to the latest statistics, more than 217,000 Australians had laboratory confirmed cases of the flu this year, compared with 91,000 last year.

Influenza A(H3N2) was the dominant circulating influenza virus throughout the season, and notification rates this year were highest in adults aged 80 years and older.

Meanwhile a stronger vaccine that costs slightly more per dose, which has been found to be 24% more effective in preventing the flu, is not registered for use in Australia.

Fluzone High-Dose Influenza Vaccine, which is used in the US, has been found to reduce the number of hospital admission for people aged 65 years or older, especially those living in long-term care facilities.

“Paying for a vaccine that doesn’t work is a false economy, if you can stop tens of thousands of people getting sick or hospitalisation the extra expense is worth undertaking,” Professor van Buynder told News Corp.

“This was a disaster year and if we don’t get policy change as a result heaven help me.”

Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, denied cheap vaccines were purchased for the National Immunisation Program.

“Of the trivalent influenza vaccines supplied internationally specifically for the elderly, one (a high-dose formulation) is not registered in Australia and the other (an adjuvanted vaccine) does not have an up-to-date registration in Australia,” he said.

“This means the vaccines are currently not able to be supplied in Australia.”

Professor van Buynder says action is needed to prevent a repeat of the crisis next year.

The Australian Influenza Surveillance Report maintains that to date, based on antigenic characterisation of circulating influenza viruses, the seasonal influenza vaccines appear to be a moderate to good match for circulating virus strains.

However, “vaccine effectiveness estimates, which provide an indication of how well the vaccine provides protection against influenza, will not be completed until the end of the influenza season”.

“Media reports referring to ‘cheap vaccines’ don’t accurately describe the situation of vaccine purchasing in Australia,” said in a statement today.

“The vaccine purchased by the Australian Government and used this year was the best available in Australia at the time, and remains so today.

“While the vaccine was relatively ineffective in the elderly this year, we had no alternative vaccine available. The effectiveness of the vaccine for those under 65 was within normal expectations this season.

“We look forward to Government and industry working on bringing better products intoAustralia.
Vaccination is still the single, most effective way to prevent influenza.”

Sanofi, supplier of flu vaccine in Australia, also issued a statement in which it said that “suggestions the high rate of influenza in Australia in 2017 are in part a result of the supply of ‘cheap’
vaccine is incorrect”.

“The 2017 flu vaccine supplied in Australia is the current standard of care globally for the prevention of influenza,” Sanofi says.

“In fact the Australian Government has achieved some of the highest rates of vaccine coverage worldwide and has demonstrated a progressive approach to bringing the best vaccines to the Australian population in a timely fashion.

“The 2017 influenza season was demonstrably worse than expected for multifactorial reasons
including the circulation of multiple strains and the virulence of the H3N2 strain, particularly in the

“This particularly bad season highlights the need for innovative vaccines to enhance protection
particularly in the elderly.

“Sanofi is in the process of registration of an enhanced influenza vaccine that we expect will be a
step forward to address this issue and we are working with the Department of Health to bring flu
high dose to the population as soon as possible.”

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  1. Dr Michael Ortiz

    I find this article very interesting as it shows how the Government controls flu vaccine supply in Australia.

    It is important to acknowledge that Pharmacy now has a vested interest in Flu Vaccination and certified Pharmacists can administer registered flu vaccines only.

    Each year the TGA determines the content of the Flu vaccine for the next flu season and Manufacturers produce vaccines according to the TGA strain requirements. So theoretically all Australian flu vaccines are the same?

    The most important part of the Flu Vaccine Market is the over 65 and “at risk” populations. GPs receive flu vaccines for these patients at no charge and these vaccines are subject to a 3 yearly Government Tender process, where price is the main but not the only criteria.

    Currently Pharmacy does not have access to the free vaccine for this population and the professional association should consider lobbying Government for access, but this will bring pharmaciss in confliction with GPs and the AMA. The professional association should also apply to MSAC for MBS funding for vaccinations similar to that paid to nurses.

    Don’t hold your breath waiting for this to happen!!

    Ultimately Government has to guess which strains of flu will emerge each flu season. The question we should be asking was did they pick the wrong strains? or was the brand available on the less effective for some reason?

    It wasn’t all that long ago that adverse reactions identified in one brand of flu vaccine for children were not as apparent in the other brands available. This resulted in a Government review of the data seeking an explanation.

    Given the high flu outbreak rate this year, it seems appropriate that government should review both the strain selection process and assess whether there was a difference between the brands administered to patients who suffered from confirmed flu resulting in death or hospitalisation.

    • Katherine Rogers

      In Victoria we are able to supply NIP vaccines to at risk patients and over 65 years. These vaccines are supplied and paid for by the government.

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