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Signs not good for flu season

Parts of Australia are on track for their worst flu seasons in years, with infection rates in the north and south of the country already far ahead of last year.

So far this year, 9213 laboratory-confirmed cases of the disease have been notified to health authorities, compared with 6225 cases at the same point last year.

Queensland (2757 confirmed cases) and South Australia (1742 cases) have, proportionately, been the hardest hit, while the rate of infections in both New South Wales and Victoria have so far been relatively low.

But the slow start to the flue season in the two most populace states is little cause for complacency.

The Influenza Specialist Group warned that the flu season had not yet begun in earnest, and was likely to develop in the next four weeks.

Evidence from last year suggests there is every reason to be concerned.

While there were less than laboratory-confirmed cases by the end of May 2014, that number quickly accelerated as flu season hit, and by year’s end there were 67,854 confirmed cases nationwide, almost double the long-term average of 34,523.

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.

The National Seasonal Influenza Immunisation Program started late this year, the delay caused by a rush to include vaccines covering 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.

But Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Baggoley has been forced to issue an urgent warning to health professionals after it was revealed that at least nine young children had been injected with the Fluvax vaccine despite explicit directions from the Government and the manufacturer that it was potentially dangerous to use on those younger than five years.

The ban has been in place since several young children given Fluvax in 2012 suffered fevers and febrile convulsions, and part of the reason for the delay in starting this year’s flu immunisation program was to ensure that suitable vaccines were available for the very young.

Adrian Rollins