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New vaccines for improved coverage against flu in Australia

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Two new ground-breaking flu vaccines will be given to more than three million Australians.

The Federal Government recently said it will provide the new vaccines to those Australians aged 65 years and over who want them.

In making the announcement, Health Minister Greg Hunt said: “This is a direct response to last year’s horrific flu season, which had a devastating impact around the world, and aimed squarely at saving lives.”

More than 90 per cent of the 1,100 flu related deaths in 2017 were of people aged over 65 years of age. While less than one to two per cent of people who get influenza will end up with a complication from it, it is the elderly who seem hardest hit.

“The medical advice, both from the vaccine producers, the World Health Organisation and the Chief Medical Officer is that the mutation which occurred last year in many countries will be specifically addressed by these new vaccines,” Mr Hunt said.

The new vaccines – Fluad® and Fluzone High Dose® – were registered in Australia to specifically provide increased protection for people aged 65 years and older.

From April 2018, both vaccines will be available through the National Immunisation Program following a recommendation from the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee.

“Annual vaccination is the most important measure for preventing influenza and its complications and we encourage all Australians to get vaccinated. We encourage all Australians aged over six months old to get a flu vaccination this year before the peak season starts in June” Mr Hunt said.

The Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, believes the new ‘enhanced’ vaccines will be more effective.

However, Professor Murphy said: “No flu vaccine is complete protection, the standard vaccine seems to protect well in younger people, but we are confident this will give better protection for the elderly.”

The Department of Health believes the new trivalent (three strain) vaccines work in over 65s by generating a strong immune response and are more effective for this age group in protecting against influenza.

There is now a mandated requirement for residential aged care providers to provide a seasonal influenza vaccination program to all staff as well as the Aged Care Quality Agency continuing a review of the infection control practices of aged care services across the country.

Under the National Immunisation Program, those eligible for a free flu shot include people aged 65 years and over, pregnant women, most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and those who suffer from chronic conditions.

The following four strains will be contained within this year’s Southern Hemisphere vaccines:

  • A(H1N1): an A/Michigan/45/2015(H1N1) pdm09 like virus;
  • A(H3N2): an A/Singapore/INFIMH-16-0019/2016(H3N2) like virus;
  • B: a B/Phuket/3073/2013 like virus; and
  • B: a B/Brisbane/60/2008 like virus.

Allen Cheng, Professor in Infectious Diseases Epidemiology at Monash University, has warned: “Despite the common perception that the flu is mild illness, it causes a significant number of deaths worldwide. To make an impact on this, we need better vaccines, better access to vaccines worldwide and new strategies, such as increasing the rate of vaccination in childhood.”

AMA President Dr Michael Gannon welcomed the Government’s announcement because it was targeting vaccine coverage for “a particularly vulnerable group”.