Kids flu cases predicted to spike if vaccine rates remain low

Michelle Wisbey

26/02/2024 3:21:46 PM

GPs have been urged to promote the vaccine among patients with young children, with just 28% of kids receiving the lifesaving immunisation.

Women helping baby with the flu blow their nose.
Just 28% of children received a flu vaccination last year.

With this year’s flu season looming, the RACGP is calling on parents to get their kids vaccinated early, as more children continue to miss out on the vital protection.
New data has revealed an 18% increase in influenza cases in those aged between six months and five years, between 2022 and 2023.
In that paediatric age group, case numbers rose to 34,461 last year, up from 29,238 the year before.
At the same time, just 28% of Australia’s paediatric age group received the potentially lifesaving vaccination.
By way of comparison, around half of all eligible babies and children under five received the vaccine in 2020.
RACGP President Dr Nicole Higgins encouraged her fellow GPs to remind patients of their free vaccination opportunities, describing last year’s flu season as ‘really worrying’.
‘GPs can vaccinate children aged six months to five years old for the flu for free under the National Immunisation Program,’ she said.
‘Vaccination is the best way to protect children against the flu and its complications.
‘A lot of people don’t realise how risky influenza can be for kids – last year, one in three parents said they were not aware children can become seriously unwell from influenza.
‘We can prevent this through vaccination.’
Children were disproportionately impacted by the flu last year, with those aged 5–9 years having the highest influenza notification rates, followed by children aged 0–4.
According to the 2023 Australian Influenza Surveillance Report, of the 39 deaths in admitted patients with confirmed flu, nine were children aged under than 16.
‘The number of deaths in children aged under 16 years reported by sentinel hospitals was higher than in many pre-COVID-19 pandemic years,’ the report concluded.
The deaths of several school children across multiple states made headlines around the nation, with those rising numbers leading to several state governments rolling out additional free flu vaccine programs, especially in Queensland where case numbers surged.
However, despite the availability of free vaccines for children, uptake has significantly declined post COVID-19.
Associate Professor Caitlin Keighley, a microbiologist and Pathology Awareness Australia ambassador, said she is already concerned that a repeat of the 2023 flu season is looming.
‘If this pattern of increased infections and lower vaccination rates happens again this year, then we could be in for a really big 2024 flu year,’ she said.
‘And a really big flu year means a lot more hospital admissions, a lot more ICU admissions, and subsequently, a lot more deaths, and the bottom line is, it is preventable.
‘You never know when you’re going to catch it. Most years there is a child that dies of influenza, and that is preventable.’
The influenza vaccine is free in Australia under the National Immunisation Program for children aged six months to under five years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from six months, pregnant women, people aged 65 or over, and people with specific medical conditions.
Around 1% of the entire Australian population had a confirmed flu case through pathology tests last year.
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