Flu vaccine now available after horror 2015 season

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Australians most vulnerable to the flu will get free access to stronger vaccines in 2016 following a record number of cases in 2015.

The government’s national immunisation program, which is now available to patients, includes a vaccine that covers four flu strains instead of three, including two influenza B strains that wreaked havoc in the 2015 flu season.

It comes after a record-breaking season in 2015, which saw a sharp increase in flu notifications on the previous year and an unexpected outbreak of Type B influenza which hit children particularly hard, causing muscle aches and pains that left some unable to walk.

Compare reported flu cases by year:

A spokeswoman for the Federal Department of Health told SBS that people should get vaccinated early.

“As influenza usually occurs from June with the peak usually falling between August and September, vaccinating from April 2016 allows people to develop immunity before transmission of influenza is at its highest,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

There have been a number of flu cases already reported this year but Aeron Hurt, acting deputy director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza, said the vaccine couldn’t be made available earlier.

“The way that the vaccine manufacturing process works is that after the decision is made as to what influenza viruses go into the vaccine (September), the manufacturers require a number of months to grow those viruses up and prepare the vaccine,” he said.

“We are constrained by the manufacturing process in some ways.”

What’s ahead

While last year saw a high number of flu cases reported around Australia, Mr Hurt said that did not mean 2016 would be the same.

“Typically what we see with influenza B is that we see a season like we did last year, but we don’t see the next season as being similar,” he said.

“So if we saw a big influenza B season last year, it’s probably a good chance that we won’t be seeing much influenza B this year.”

He said it was always hard to predict what was ahead but researchers looked to the northern hemisphere to see what influenza strains had been prevalent in their winter.

Last year, a type of A influenza – H1N1 – was prominent.

Related readingAvailability

Flu vaccinations are available through health clinics and some pharmacies, and the quadrivalent vaccine is free for certain people.

Those people include: pregnant women; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged six months to under five years; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 15 years and over; people aged 65 years and over; and people aged six months and over with medical conditions predisposing them to severe influenza.  

Mr Hurt said rates of flu vaccination around Australia remained low, even among these groups most at risk.

He said the vaccination was thought to be about 70 per cent effective based on studies done each year.

“Whilst we know that having the vaccine won’t categorically mean you won’t get infected, we believe that the vaccine will result in a significant number of people not being infected.”

“And also if you did happen to be infected and you were vaccinated, it’s likely that your disease would be somewhat more mild than it would if you hadn’t been vaccinated.”

– With AAP