Fears downplayed as flu cases soar

SA Health has played down fears following the announcement that an influenza vaccine for people aged 65 and over has been removed from the federal government's National Immunisation Program (NIP) this year.

Sanofi's Fluzone High-Dose vaccine was added to the NIP in 2018 in response to a public health crisis following the worst Australian influenza season on record in 2017.

This year it will have to be obtained through a private script from a GP or pharmacist, however SA Health Director of Communicable Disease Control Branch, Dr Louise Flood said that as in previous years, people aged 65 years and over will remain eligible for free flu vaccination in 2019 under the federal government's NIP.

"People aged 65 years and over are eligible to receive a free dose of the specially formulated trivalent vaccine (Fluad(r))," she said.

"This vaccine provides stronger protection against three strains of flu virus than past vaccines, due to it stimulating a stronger immune response in older people whose immune system may be changing with age.

"The trivalent vaccine is strongly recommended and preferred for those aged 65 years and over. If patients have questions about flu vaccination, they should talk to their GP or local immunisation provider."

Concerns have however been raised over the fact that only one free vaccine will be available this year, limiting choices for the elderly.

This comes at a time when there are growing fears around the upcoming flu season, with cases in SA almost quadrupling in comparison to last year.

From 1 January to 6 April 2019, there were 4,485 notifications of influenza reported to the Communicable Disease Control Branch, compared to 1,139 cases reported for the same period last year.

GP and member of the Immunisation Coalition, Dr Rodney Pearce said it was important that people were aware of the vaccines available to them and encouraged open discussions with GPs.

"It's important that anyone having a vaccine is aware there are choices on the private market," he said.

"It concerns me as with any vaccine program that there is a notion that just because the government only funds one option, there aren't others out there."

"What tends to happen is those conversations don't occur in Australia and patients don't get the benefit of knowing there are vaccines in the private market that may actually be suitable and healthy for them."

Dr Flood said the important thing was that people were vaccinated.

"Vaccination is the best available protection to reduce the risk of becoming ill with influenza," she said.

Flu vaccines have begun to be rolled out and are expected to be made available to immunisation providers across SA this month.

"Free flu vaccinations are available for people aged 65 years and over, children under 5 years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 6 months and older, pregnant women and people with certain medical conditions," said Dr Flood.

"Each year the influenza vaccine changes, as it is designed to match the virus types anticipated to circulate in the southern hemisphere based on what strains have been seen in the northern hemisphere. Protection from the vaccine decreases over time. For both of these reasons, it is important to have the flu vaccine every year."

Member for Mayo Rebekha Sharkie acknowledged influenza as one of the biggest killers of the elderly.

"My understanding is that both vaccines provide a level of protection and that there appears to be evidence supporting the efficacy of each vaccine for those over 65 years of age," she said.

"Centre Alliance is a party that makes evidence-based decisions. We would need to see the medical evidence underpinning the Government's decision to withdraw the high dose vaccine before commenting further.

"I will be making inquiries of the Health Minister's office regarding this issue. However, influenza is a serious condition and as we approach the flu season I encourage everyone to discuss their vaccination options with their GP."