The 2017 flu vaccine was well matched to the circulating strains – yet appears to have been less effective than usual
Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy said in a statement this week that the 2017 season has been characterised by high levels of influenza A (H3N2), a strain which disproportionately affects older people.
“We have seen reports of high numbers of deaths in nursing homes this year and also amongst healthy adults,” he said.
“These are tragic events which underscore the message that influenza is a serious disease and that vaccination is absolutely critical for protecting individuals and the community.
“We do know that the 2017 vaccines have had a relatively good match with circulating strains, which provides the best opportunity for protection.
“There is, however evidence that the effectiveness of the vaccines has been less than usual this year, particularly in terms of protecting the elderly against influenza A (H3N2).”
The latest Australian Influenza Surveillance Report, to 15 September 2017, shows that there has been more than two and a half times the number of laboratory confirmed notifications of flu reported to the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System this year, compared to last year.
An earlier season onset and introduction of rapid testing have been factors in this increase, the report says.
Flu activity has decreased from its mid-August peak: August saw 85,754 cases, while this month, up till September 27, there have been 44,368 cases of influenza reported.
Prof Murphy said that currently only around 70% of eligible Australians take up the offer of a free vaccine through the National Immunisation Program.
“The Australian Government strongly encourages the approximately 2.5 million eligible Australians, who do not currently have the vaccine, to be vaccinated,” he said.
“The Australian Government has been carefully monitoring vaccine effectiveness for seasonal influenza vaccines and is committed to exploring enhanced vaccination program arrangements through the NIP, including the use of advanced vaccines for those aged 65 years and over into the future.”
The Pharmacy Guild wrote in Forefront this week that 2017’s severe flu season has highlighted the need to extend the role of community pharmacies in protecting the community from this disease.
“This is the first year that pharmacists across Australia have been able to administer flu vaccinations in community pharmacies and a survey of patients earlier in the year suggested showed more than seven million Australians aged 18 to 64 years were planning to have a flu shot this year,” says the Guild newsletter.
“The Galaxy Research survey conducted for the Pharmacy Guild found more than six million Australians would be more likely to have a flu shot if it could be administered at a local pharmacy, including two million who previously had no intention to vaccinate against flu.
“That an extra two million Australians were likely to have a flu vaccination this year because of their availability through community pharmacy points to the success of the scheme, and the need to extend it further next year.”