Improve access to flu jabs: Guild

Pharmacist administers a vaccine. Source: PSA.
Pharmacist administers a vaccine. Source: PSA.

The AMA’s president has told Australians that there is “no need to pay for an inappropriate vaccine” for over-65s who want to be immunised against the flu

Stakeholder groups are urging Australians to be vaccinated against influenza this year, as conspiracy theories about flu and the COVID-19 coronavirus circulate.

The AMA’s national president, Dr Tony Bartone, has told Sunrise’s Samantha Armytage that doctors have departed from their usual advice about when to be vaccinated against flu due to concerns about concurrent infection with the novel coronavirus.

In previous years since the advent of flu vaccination by accredited pharmacists, doctor groups have expressed concerns that Australians who access the vaccine “too early” could leave themselves exposed towards the end of any given flu season, as protection may begin to wane after three to four months. They had suggested mid-April vaccines – administered by a GP – as a good starting point.

“This year, we’ve started perhaps a little bit early because of the threat of COVID-19 and because we did have some early reports of increased influenza activity,” Dr Bartone has now told Ms Armytage.

“But with the social distancing measures, with the success of those, with the suppression of some of the influenza cases as well because of that, we’ve got some time up our sleeve.”

He later said in a statement that “Getting the flu vaccine early will help alleviate pressure on the health system”.

“With many of our health resources focused on saving lives and treating those with COVID-19, we need to reduce the number of presentations for influenza.

“We also need to provide greater protections for vulnerable people to minimise the possibility that they could contract both influenza and COVID-19.”

He said that the “best and safest” place for flu vaccination was from GPs.

“GPs can administer a National Immunisation Program (NIP) funded free vaccine in every State and Territory, which applies to many millions of Australians.

“In particular, the vaccine that is recommended for people over 65 is free and only supplied through the NIP. There is no need to pay for an inappropriate vaccine in this age group.”

A spokesperson for the Pharmacy Guild, however, pointed out that pharmacists do have access to National Immunisation Program stock in some jurisdictions and called for wider access.

“Community pharmacies have access to NIP vaccines for vulnerable patients including the elderly in Victoria, WA, and the ACT,” the spokesperson said.

“We believe this NIP access should be national and uniform across all jurisdictions so that consumers can obtain these vaccinations safely and conveniently at their local pharmacy, administered by a trained pharmacist vaccinator.”

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has announced that from 1 May 2020, all aged care workers and visitors must have been vaccinated against seasonal influenza to enter an aged care facility.

NPS MedicineWise has also encouraged Australians to be vaccinated, and Nerida Packham, pharmacist and Medicines Line manager at NPS MedicineWise, told the AJP that the line has received a number of enquiries from consumers about the vaccine.

“Common questions include choice of vaccination for people over 65 years of age and time to seroconvert following the influenza vaccine,” she said.

Fortunately, to date, Medicine Line has not received any enquiries regarding the effectiveness of the influenza vaccine against COVID-19, she told the AJP. A Guild spokesperson has also told the AJP that there have not been any concerns raised that consumers are conflating the two vaccines.

“For enquiries relating to COVID-19, Medicine Line pharmacists are reminding consumers that there is currently no known effective vaccine against COVID-19,” said Ms Packham.

“The influenza vaccination will not prevent people from getting infected with COVID-19, but it will help avoid influenza and its complications,” she said.

“Symptoms may be more severe if people are infected with both influenza and COVID-19 at the same time.

“Evidence and research about the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is growing and evolving all the time. Coronavirus is a type or family of viruses, not just one virus—there are multiple, different coronaviruses.

“Some cause common cold symptoms, others can be more serious. As SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has not been seen before further studies are needed to determine the specific characteristics of the virus and causes of infection.”

She said that NPS MedicineWise is communicating to the general public that the more people who are vaccinated against the flu this season, the less the flu will spread in the community.

“Minimising the spread of flu is a good way to reduce strain on hospitals and the healthcare system in general during the current COVID-19 pandemic.”

Fairfax Media report, however, that people in one Sydney suburb – Ryde, a coronavirus hotspot – received printouts, placed in their letterboxes, from anti-vaccinators who claimed that the Covid-19 pandemic was exaggerated and a ploy by world interests including “Big Pharma” to introduce forced vaccinations.

The letter encouraged people to avoid being vaccinated against the flu this year.

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said such a call was “absolutely insane”.

“If your immune system drops because you catch the flu, then you are much more likely to be exposed to other viruses including COVID-19,” Mr Hazzard told the Sydney Morning Herald.

“My message for the anti-vaxxers and for others is: please, just go away and let people get on with their lives safely and take their flu shots.”

Mr Hazzard later thanked Fairfax Media for the piece via Twitter.


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