Free flu vaccination campaigns expand across the country

Matt Woodley

30/05/2022 5:09:04 PM

Most states are territories are now offering to pay for people to get vaccinated against influenza, as the national caseload continues to mount.

Flu vaccination.
More than 26,000 laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza were recorded in the past fortnight alone. (Image: AAP)

Predictions of an influenza resurgence appear to be coming to fruition.
For more than a month, the weekly number of laboratory-confirmed influenza cases reported in Australia has exceeded the five-year average, and the 39,000 total cases are around 40 times higher than those recorded during the COVID-influenced ‘flu-zero’ season of 2021.
And while still not at the same level as peak 2019, the situation appears to be deteriorating, with more than 26,000 influenza notifications recorded in the past fortnight alone.
For context, that figure is more than three times higher than the notifications recorded in the prior two weeks and equivalent to two thirds of all reported cases this year.
The resulting hospital influx – combined with sustained pressure already being applied by ongoing COVID outbreaks in most parts of the country – has left state and territory governments scrambling to stem the spread before winter comes and brings with it even more respiratory disease.
After first blaming GPs for overcrowded emergency departments for apparently not seeing enough patients with respiratory symptoms face-to-face, Queensland then turned to general practice for help after offering cost-free access to flu vaccination to the entire the community.
The move set off a chain reaction, with governments in South Australia, Western Australia and New South Wales all offering variations of the Queensland Government’s commitment to free flu shots for the month of June.
While the details of these schemes are still being worked out, RACGP NSW&ACT Faculty Chair Associate Professor Charlotte Hespe is hopeful that the confusion and initial rush to book will be short-lived.
‘My biggest goal is [the free shots for all residents] will alert people who are vulnerable that they do need to come forward and do this,’ she told Nine Newspapers.
‘Even if you’re young and healthy, flu is not a pleasant illness.’
South Australian GP and Chair of the Immunisation Coalition, Dr Rod Pearce, has also welcomed the move, telling the ABC ‘everyone benefits from a flu vaccine’.
‘It’s a unique set of circumstances, having had COVID, having had no flu around for a while and then, after two years, we’re going to be hit by a worse flu season,’ he said.
Aside from state health authorities, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) has also been promoting the importance of flu vaccination, and previously reminded practitioners that it could be administered at the same time as COVID-19 shots.
However, while GPs have been mostly welcoming of the initiatives, Queensland Health did come under criticism from GPs last week due to a lack of communication prior to announcing the immunisation campaign.
Warwick Road Medical practice manager Angie Walker told the ABC first heard about the free flu vaccinations on social media, and immediately wondered who who would pay for the doses already in practices.
‘All we have is a handshake-like agreement to say the government will compensate general practice and pharmacies for the cost but we don’t know how that’s going to work, there’s no policy, there’s no procedure, there’s no process in place,’ she said.
‘We know absolutely nothing and we’re finding out via social media and via our patients.’
The lack of communication meant clinics had not been provided information before the announcement in the media, leaving practices scrambling to decipher which vaccines could be given freely and whether they would be reimbursed for purchased stock.
‘I think what [general] practices were waiting for is confirmation in writing and details,’ GP and practice owner Dr Maria Boulton said.
‘We wish this all would have been sorted out before the media announcement was made, to save all the confusion.’
Neither governments in Tasmania or the ACT have indicated whether they will follow the lead of other parts of the country, while the NT is considering the move.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews also indicated that his state would adopt some form of free influenza vaccination program, once the details had been settled.
‘Announcements about vaccines are very easy and I think some in federal politics learnt that the hard way,’ he said.
‘You’ve got to have a plan that sits behind it. You’ve got to have consultation, detailed discussions with the AMA, the Royal [Australian] College of GPs, and of course, the Pharmacy Guild to make sure that you’ve got all that work done to be able to deliver what you pay for, or deliver what you offer.
‘We are in active discussions with those groups and more.’
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