Unprecedented, unexpected surge in demand for flu vaccine

Public Health

7 Jun 2018

Australia is experiencing “unprecedented” demand for influenza vaccine this year with uptake up 32% on last year, new health department figures show.

In response to the unexpected demand the government has asked Seqirus to supply another 950,000 doses, Australia’s chief medical officer Professor Brendan Murphy told a conference in Adelaide this week.

More than 10 million doses have already hit the market this year, Professor Murphy told delegates at the Public Health Association of Australia’s 16th national immunisation conference on Tuesday.

The “unprecedented” demand means the department of health is now playing a delicate balancing act of “making sure the right stocks are in the right places”, says Professor Kristine Macartney, acting director at the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance.

Increased availability and subsidisation, coupled with growing public awareness about the dangers of influenza, were behind the rise in demand, she told the limbic.

Professor Macartney, said along with the state government funded vaccination programs for under-fives in seven out of eight jurisdictions, and two new potent vaccines for over 65s, “I think the public are getting the correct message that flu is not just a trivial cold”, she said.

“It can be a very serious infection and lead to complications in all age groups. We had a very serious flu season last year and that put a lot of stress on the health system.”

The challenge now “is about getting enough vaccines supplied and getting the right stock into the right fridges”, she said.

Media reports this week claim department of health officials have “raided” the fridges of a Canberra GP practice in order to redistribute flu vaccine, amid dwindling supplies.

“Raiding is a bit of a strong word,” Professor Macartney told the limbic. “I just think because of that increased demand some of the work that health departments are doing is talking to individual practices and making sure that they’re ordering the right amount.”

Some practices might need to reduce the number of vaccinations they perform in the short term, she said.

However: “I think people feel reasonably confident there is going to be enough flu vaccine across the country in the coming weeks. It’s just taking a bit of time, that is my understanding.”

But one public health expert believes the flu vaccination is being oversold here in Australia.

In an article published by The Conversation, Professor Chris del Mar, a professor of public health at Bond University, says findings from three important Cochrane reviews on the effectiveness of the vaccine “aren’t consistent with the advice we’re been given”.

The first review which looks at the effects of the vaccine in healthy adults from 25 studies conducted over single flu seasons in North America, South America, and Europe between 1969 and 2009, found the vaccine reduced the chance of getting laboratory-confirmed influenza from 23 cases out of 1,000 to 9 cases out of 1,000.

“So this means that out of every 100 healthy adults vaccinated, 99 get no benefit against laboratory confirmed influenza,” he writes.

In the piece he also highlights the genetic instability of the flu virus – which means “new vaccines must be prepared every year for a best-guess at next year’s virus and we need vaccination every year” – and the risk of adverse events like Guillain Barre syndrome and fever leading to febrile convulsions in children, suggesting a focus on other public health measures such as physical barriers (regular hand washing and face masks) may be a more effective alternative to mass vaccination.

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