Australia’s leading influenza expert body is urging Australians to book a flu vaccination, with influenza cases already at significantly higher levels recorded than this time last year.
The government-funded flu vaccine for at-risk groups will be made available from April 20, a month later than usual, due to manufacturing delays with incorporating two new strains into the vaccine.
The Influenza Specialist Group is warning the late start to the flu vaccination season is leaving Australians with only about six weeks to get vaccinated before winter.
According to Dr Alan Hampson, Chair, ISG, the most recent, serious influenza cases in the Northern hemisphere were caused by the A(H3N2) virus, which emerged as the predominant, circulating strain during the five-to-six month vaccine manufacturing period.
This virus type, which has historically been associated with increased severity among the elderly, has also severely impacted all age groups.
“The 2015 Southern Hemisphere free flu vaccine contains two new strains, including the H3N2 influenza strain, which has been responsible for a severe flu season and high flu hospitalisation rates in the Northern Hemisphere, and the late outbreaks of influenza B in Europe,” Dr Hampson says.
“All indications are that our vaccine is now a really good match for the coming Australian flu season.
“Higher baseline levels of flu have, however, continued throughout our summer, and during the first three months of 2015, have actually been at the highest levels recorded for this time of year.
“Cases usually rise sharply in June, with a peak in August, so there’s only about a six-week optimum period to vaccinate against flu this year,” he says.
In 2014, almost 68,000 laboratory confirmed cases of flu were recorded, the highest number of notified flu cases in Australia in any year to date.
As of March, 2015, 4,381 flu cases had been recorded, compared to 3,838 at the same time last year.
“What’s important to note is that laboratory confirmed cases are the tip of the iceberg and probably represent less than five per cent of total flu cases in Australia,” says Dr Hampson.
New ISG flu research reveals approximately 2.3 million Australians (25%) aged 35 to 64 have underlying medical conditions that may place them at increased risk of severe complications, should they contract influenza.
Yet more than one in three of these Australians (34%) with one or more risk factors do not plan to vaccinate against flu this year, nor are they concerned that a flu infection could lead to severe complications or hospitalisation.
Complacency is particularly high among Australians aged 35 to 44 years with only 17% saying they were “very concerned” that severe flu could lead to complications.
Professor Robert Booy, Director, ISG and vaccine and infectious diseases expert, Sydney, says the new research demonstrates messages regarding the risks associated with influenza are still not getting through to all members of the community.
“New research among working Australians aged 35-44 years shows only one-in-six realise that flu can be severe and cause hospitalisation. Disturbingly, this reveals most people are inadequately concerned about flu,” Prof Booy says.
ISG data indicates between 1,500-to-3,500 influenza-related deaths occur in Australia each year, which is higher than the national road death toll. Furthermore, an estimated 18,000 Australians are hospitalised with influenza-related illness each year.
“Flu clearly affects quality of life and may lead to serious health complications,” says Prof Booy.
Almost three in four Australians claim to miss out on important life activities and events with the flu, including going to work (57%) and catching up with friends for dinner (37%).