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Doctors call for flu vaccine delay to better guard against ‘damaging’ peak season

Getting your flu shot a month later could better protect you against peak flu season.

Getting your flu shot a month later could better protect you against peak flu season. Photo: Getty

Doctors say improving the timing of influenza immunisations and making the vaccine freely available to all Australians is key to saving lives next flu season.

This year’s flu season has been labelled the “worst on record”. It impacted 217,000 Australians – more than double the previous record of about 100,000 in 2015 – and killed at least 73 people.

Dr Bastian Seidel, president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, said one of the main issues is timing the administration of the vaccine to maximise its protection.

“For every month after having a flu shot, the vaccination becomes up to 10 per cent less effective,” he said.

“Usually flu season peaks around July or August and often the vaccination becomes available in March or April. The vaccine also takes a couple of weeks to become effective.”

The latest victim of this year’s flu season – a 40-year-old Melbourne mother of three – died as recently as Friday (late October) despite having been vaccinated.

flu vaccine

Industry experts are calling for the introduction of stronger flu vaccines. Photo: Getty

“We need to ensure vaccinations are being timed a little bit closer to the peak of the flu season,” Dr Seidel said.

“People who got their vaccine too early may be hardly protected now.”

Flu shot rates in Australia are “extremely low”, especially in children, he added.

“Less than 10 per cent of children are being immunised against the flu despite the latest medical advice recommending that everyone should be vaccinated from six months old.

“Generally, 30 to 45 per cent of adults aged 18 and over are getting vaccinated.

“The government only funds certain people, like those with chronic medical conditions and pregnant women, but there are a large amount of people who would benefit from the vaccine but have to foot the bill.”

Dr Seidel said he welcomed moves from the Queensland Labor and Victorian Coalition governments towards fully funding flu vaccines for children aged six months to five years old.

Could Australia benefit from ‘stronger’ flu vaccines?

This has come after the Immunisation Coalition called for flu vaccines “stronger” than what is currently available to the Australian market.

Immunisation Coalition chairman Paul Van Buynder said Australians should be able to access a flu shot four times as strong as the current vaccine.

However this vaccine, also found to be 24 per cent more effective in adults aged 65 and above, has not been made accessible in Australia.

Professor Van Buynder said the current vaccines cost about $6 to $8 per dose and understands that the stronger flu shot would cost more.

He said next year’s flu vaccine formula has already been developed earlier this month, however the dosage would be decided after negotiations between government bodies and pharmaceutical companies, with cost becoming a factor.

The Australian Department of Health told The New Daily it used the “best available” flu shot this year.

It planned to consider new and strengthened vaccines, in discussion with manufacturers.

“Of course cost has nothing to do with any decisions on what flu vaccine is chosen each year,” a department spokeswoman said.

“The predominant strain of influenza this season appears to be one to which elderly are more susceptible and which can cause more significant illness in the elderly.

“This particular strain has undergone some changes during the season and this may also have contributed to occurrence of a larger than usual number of cases in the vaccinated elderly.”

The country’s leading medical association reassured Australians that it had full confidence in the current process in developing vaccines for release to the Australian market.

Tony Bartone, the vice-president of the Australian Medical Association, told The New Daily all available vaccines are based on recommendations from the advice of independent exerts at the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee.

“Price did not influence last year’s vaccine. No shortcuts are made,” he told The New Daily.

“Flu is a very clever bug and this year’s virus was niftier than previous years. It is a very dangerous organism that changes continuously, and it will continue to change every year.”

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