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Signs not good for flu season

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The nation’s top medical officer has issued an urgent call for people, particularly vulnerable groups including pregnant women, the elderly and those with chronic illnesses, to get vaccinated against the flu amid signs the nation is headed for its worst season on record.

Official figures show that so far this year more than 14,124 have caught the flu – double the long-term average for the period – and a third higher than for the same time last year.

In a worrying sign that the flu season is gathering momentum, figures compiled through the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System show that in in just one month, from 5 June to 6 July, an extra 4911 laboratory-confirmed cases were reported, including almost 2000 in the first week of July.

Underlining the seriousness of the illness, the Health Department said it had so far been notified of 36 deaths associated with influenza since the beginning of the year, with the likelihood that number will rise sharply as the rate of infection accelerates.

Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Baggoley specifically urged people considered to be at risk, including those aged 65 years and older, Indigenous Australians, pregnant women, and those with cardiac disease and chronic respiratory conditions and illnesses, to take advantage of the free vaccine provided by the Government.

“Flu is highly contagious and spreads easily from person to person, through the air, and on the hands,” Professor Baggoley said. “We need to get higher uptake [of the vaccine] among these groups.”

The Chief Medical Officer emphasised the importance of doctors and other health professionals in helping ensure people were vaccinated against the disease.

“Immunisation is still the best form of protection from influenza, and health care professionals play an essential role in ensuring high uptake,” he said.

The National Seasonal Influenza Immunisation Program began late this year because of a rare double strain change in the vaccine to cover two new strains of the virus – one of which caused havoc in the northern hemisphere.

In the US alone, around 100 children were reported to have died from the flu during the northern flu season, and there was also widespread illness among the elderly.

For the first time under the national immunisation program, Australians have access to single-dose vaccines covering the four most common flu viruses, including three quadrivalent formulations.

The World Health Organisation and the Australian Influenza Vaccine Committee have recommended that vaccines this year cover one existing and two new strains – the California H1N1-like virus that has been in circulation since 2010, the Switzerland H3N2-like virus and the Phuket 2013-like virus.

There have been claims that the delay to the vaccination program has contributed to the strong start to the flu season by leaving a large number of people unprotected, and Professor Robert Booy of the Influenza Specialist Group told the Herald Sun fewer people had been vaccinated that “we would have liked”.

But Health Minister Sussan Ley said the Government was ahead of where it was last year in acquiring vaccine doses.

Ms Ley said that so far in 2015 4.5 million doses had been bought under the National Immunisation Program, 200,000 more than were distributed in 2014.

She did not say how many of these doses had been administered.

Ms Ley said the flu season usually peaked in August and September which, given that it usually takes around three weeks following vaccination to develop immunity, meant people needed to get themselves vaccinated as soon as possible.

Promisingly, early figures suggest vaccinations are helping to reduce the number and severity of infections.

The pilot Flu Tracking surveillance system, a joint University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Area Health Service and Hunter Medical Research initiative that collects data from a weekly online survey, has so far identified only low levels of influenza infection.

But it found that 3.4 per cent of those not vaccinated against the flu suffered fevers and coughs, and 2.1 per cent had to take time off work, while among those vaccinated, 2.7 per cent had coughs and fevers and 1.6 per cent reported having to take sick leave.

The results underline calls from AMA Vice President Dr Stephen Parnis for people, particularly elderly and vulnerable patients and health professionals, to make sure they are vaccinated against the flu.

Dr Parnis said it was important for doctors, nurses and other health workers to get the flu vaccine, for the sake of their own health as well as that of their patients.

Adrian Rollins