Flu vaccine now available after horror 2015 season

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008px; line-height: 1.538em;”>This story was updated on April 14 to reflect that the vaccine is now available

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

Call to UN chief for drugs policy shift

An open letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon signed by more than 1000 people, including financier Warren Buffett and rock star Sting, says the war on drugs has failed.

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It calls for a shift in global drug policy from emphasising criminalisation and punishment to health and human rights.

The letter signed by former presidents of Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Switzerland and others, was made public on Thursday in advance of a United Nations special session on the topic beginning April 19. It was released by the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance.

Ethan Nadelmann, the DPA’s executive director, said the number of people sympathetic to progressive and alternative approaches has swelled in the nearly two decades since the UN’s last special session on international drug policies.

“People are with us, and I think that this public letter has provided a vehicle,” Nadelmann said.

The letter says that for decades, governments have focused resources on repressing drug use, resulting in the imprisonment of millions of people, mostly the poor and ethnic minorities, and mostly for non-violent offences.

The signatories of the letter instead call for an emphasis on drug use as a health policy issue with the focus on “harm reduction”, including funding addiction treatment and treatment of addicts who acquired HIV/AIDS and hepatitis through drug use.

“The drug control regime that emerged during the last century has proven disastrous for global health, security and human rights,” the letter says.

“It created a vast illicit market that has enriched criminal organisations, corrupted governments, triggered explosive violence, distorted economic markets and undermined basic moral values.”

Last month, The Global Commission on Drug Policy – whose members include former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson – said that recent discussions in Vienna on the upcoming UN session relied too heavily on an outdated law-and-order approach to drug policy.

Ilona Szabo de Carvalho, the Rio de Janeiro-based commission’s co-ordinator, said the emphasis should be on alternative approaches including decriminalisation, abolishing capital punishment for drug-related offences and a focus on treatment.

ASX steps up its CEO search

ASX Ltd has stepped up efforts to find a new chief as the share market operator posted a rise in profit underpinned by robust trading activity.

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ASX said the search for a new boss is “progressing at accelerated pace”, after Elmer Funke Kupper resigned in March after almost four-and-a-half years at the helm.

In the interim, Chairman Rick Holliday-Smith is overseeing the business, with day-to-day operations managed by two senior executives, Peter Hiom and Amanda Harkness.

Mr Funke Kupper’s departure came as Australian Federal Police revealed they were investigating his previous employer, Tabcorp, amid allegations the gaming business was involved in foreign bribery in Cambodia.

Mr Funke Kupper is a former CEO of the gambling giant, and sat on Tabcorp’s board up until March.

ASX on Thursday reported a six per cent rise in net profit to $317.4 million in the nine months to March 31, while revenue rose seven per cent to $553 million.

The company reported growth across all its major divisions: listings and issuer services, trading services, equity post-trade services, derivatives and over-the-counter markets.

Still, listings and capital raising activity was lower in the third quarter of fiscal 2016, compared to the first six months of the year.

Operating expenses rose six per cent to $127.5 million over the nine months.

Mr Holliday-Smith said the group was “well positioned for future opportunities”, while the company’s technology upgrade was progressing.

A new trading platform is on track to go live between July and November 2016 for futures, with equities to follow in 2017.

ASX shares gained $1.11, or 2.7 per cent, to $42.70, valuing the company at $8.3 billion.

Moody’s gives budget wake-up call: Bowen

Scott Morrison’s joy of an unexpected drop in the jobless rate will have been quickly dashed by a stark warning that Australia’s triple-A credit rating could be at risk after his first budget.

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One of the world’s major credit rating agencies is not happy with what it is hearing from the treasurer just weeks out from the May 3 budget.

Moody’s Investors Service notes the treasurer has excluded revenue-raising measures when talking about his budget aims, and given the government’s previous difficulties in reducing welfare benefits, it believes actual spending cuts may be modest.

“Without such measures, limited spending cuts are unlikely to meaningfully advance the government’s aim of balanced finances by the fiscal year ending June 2021 and government debt will likely continue to climb, a credit negative for Australia,” Moody’s says.

A credit downgrade would hit confidence while lifting borrowing costs abroad for the government and big business, which, in turn, would be passed on to consumers.

Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen said the agency’s comment was a wake-up call for Mr Morrison.

“Stop playing games, start governing. We’ve been saying for a long time now that tough decisions are necessary on revenue and spending,” he told reporters in Sydney on Thursday.

But Mr Morrison said the best way to protect the rating was to deliver a strong budget that backed growth and jobs in the economy.

“The government doesn’t believe that what has been put out today is a licence to tax Australians more,” the treasurer told reporters in his southern Sydney electorate.

But it was a reminder of the need to continue to consolidate the budget, reduce the deficit and over time that would reduce the debt.

“Our plan is to see revenue rises through growth and ensuring a better targeted tax system,” Mr Morrison said.

There was some good news on employment front with the jobless rate unexpectedly dropping to 5.7 per cent, its lowest level since the Coalition came to power in September 2013.

Economists had predicted a rise to 5.9 per cent from 5.8 per cent.

The total number of people in employment also rose by a larger-than-expected 26,100.

“So when a Coalition government is able to implement its economic agenda, you can clearly see it’s one of job growth and job creation,” Employment Minister Michaelia Cash told reporters in Perth.

Commonwealth Securities economist Savanth Sebastian said the drop in the jobless rate would provide a big boost to confidence among consumers.

“As we saw over the latter part of 2015, job security plays a big part in household consumption,” he said.

Consumer confidence has been under a cloud in recent weeks ahead of the budget and a possible election on July 2.