Flu vaccine supply fails to meet high demand

Anastasia Tsirtsakis

24/04/2020 4:49:52 PM

Australians have responded to RACGP calls to get immunised earlier than usual, but distribution network delays appear to be causing shortages. 

Syringe and vaccine.
Many clinics are reporting shortages, despite more doses of influenza vaccine having been distributed than this time last year.

One of the areas where the shortage is being noticed is Victoria – even though the state health department has distributed more than 1.7 million doses and began two weeks ahead of other states.
Delays in the distribution network appear to be causing the shortages, with a survey of general practices in and around Geelong finding at least 50 practices are experiencing major issues obtaining supply.
The delays may be due to social distancing practices employed by the delivery company, according to the survey run by Geelong GP and RACGP Victoria Council member Dr Bernard Shiu, who is a member of the Depatment of Health and Human Service’s (DHHS) COVID-19 Primary Care Planning and Advisory group.
Dr Shiu shared the results with newsGP and the DHHS immunisation team, who he praised for being ‘transparent’ about the issue.
‘We’ve already distributed more than 1.7 million doses, despite the added challenges of high demand for all vaccines,’ a DHHS spokesperson told newsGP.
‘We’re also in regular contact with the Commonwealth [Government] about accessing further supplies so we can ensure as much of the community as possible receives this vital protection.’
As of 22 April, more than 1.769 million doses of influenza vaccine have been distributed across the state for patients eligible under the National Immunisation Program (NIP), including more than 143,000 doses for healthcare workers.
This is 690,904 more doses distributed than this time last year.
‘It causes a lot of anxiety. [Some GPs ask] “how come down the road some organisations and clinics can get 5000, 10,000 vaccines, but we are being drip fed 50 per week?”,’ Dr Shiu said.
‘[If] patients come to the clinic and we don’t have those vaccines [it] causes a bit of angst. We didn’t know what the problem was, and we couldn’t tell the patients what’s going on and so the patients become even more anxious.’
This lack of clarity has reportedly resulted in a number of patients seeking out more expensive and less safe alternatives, such as pharmacies.
‘These vaccines are a lot more expensive. For example, we are aware of one of the pharmacies actually charging for the vaccines and charging $5 on top to give a mask to the patient who is coming just to get a vaccination,’ Dr Shiu said.
‘So that really upsets us because they could have gotten it completely free from us.’
To improve the situation, Dr Shiu believes the process of communication between health departments and GPs needs to be better, with greater transparency around distribution.
‘There are a lot of logistics issues behind how to deliver the Government-funded vaccines to the GPs and also the private vaccine availability,’ he said.
‘Most GPs actually don’t understand the process and just assume they’re all coming from the same source, but they’re not.
‘Different organisations are allowed to negotiate with different manufacturers to have their own stocks and their own delivery schedules that are different from the Government’s schedules. It had nothing to do with the DHHS.’
Dr Shiu said it would be helpful if logistic companies had online stock indicators so GPs can be aware of exactly how many vaccines are available and how they can be accessed.
While it is yet early days, if patients continue to adhere to social distancing measures GPs are expecting a mild flu season. But Dr Shiu said that should not make people complacent, particularly vulnerable patient cohorts who are eligible for free vaccines under the NIP.
‘[Vulnerable patients] should get their vaccine as soon as possible,’ he said.
‘The DHHS is very keen on working with GPs to solve this problem [and] to hear about the stories and the difficulties.’
The DHHS has set up a dedicated email account for problems with flu vaccines. GPs who are missing vaccines – or who have surplus – can email this account directly.
‘Overall, we have a bit more understanding about the whole process, which is never a bad thing, and the RACGP will continue to advocate for our members,’ Dr Shiu said.
The DHHS advises private immunisation providers to contact their supplier to access influenza vaccines immediately.
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Dr Tatiana Cimpoesu   26/04/2020 1:10:15 PM

We find it hard to compete with Pharmacies purchasing hundreds of vaccines for $7 unit price when we were quoted buying prices of $11.95 and $14.90! GPs pay hefty fees for ongoing training, focussed on diagnosis, prevention and treatment (including vaccinations) and our clinics set up offer privacy and isolation as opposed to populated public spaces intended for dispensing medication and selling products. Plus we know our patients so they don’t need to complete the pre‐immunisation checklist and we don’t compromise on the waiting time post vaccination to observe possible for side effects. Why is primary care not an important focus for health policies? Isn’t it better to prevent than to treat seriously sick patients in hospital?