Illawarra’s senior residents will have access to two new groundbreaking vaccines after last year’s flu epidemic, which saw almost 5000 confirmed cases across the region.
NSW Health figures show there were 4897 influenza notifications within the Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District in 2017 – a nearly 300 per cent increase on 2016 (1253 cases).
Cases started to rise in July (652 cases) with peak season in August (2374) and September (1349). By comparison there were 138 cases in July 2016; 513 cases that August and 355 that September.
Statewide there were over 100,000 flu notifications last year, and 250,000 nationally.
It’s prompted the Federal Government to this week announce it will provide two new enhanced flu vaccines to over three million Australians aged 65 years and over - free of charge.
More than 90 per cent of the 1100 flu related deaths in Australia last year were by people aged over 65.
The vaccines – Fluad and Fluzone High Dose – will be available through the National Immunisation Program from April. Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, said the trivalent (three strain) vaccines had been specifically made for the elderly, as their immune systems responded less effectively to vaccines.
“So these vaccines have a way of enhancing that immune response, two different ways,” he said. “One of them has more of the kill virus antigen in it that produces stronger immune response.
“And the other one has a standard amount of the antigen but has what’s called an adjuvant, a chemical which tickles up the immune system to respond better.”
The health department advises all Australians over six months to get a flu vaccination before the peak season starts in June.
Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District public health director Curtis Gregory said planning was being undertaken now to ensure the district was prepared.
Education programs around vaccination and other preventative measures were being rolled out – with aged care and childcare centres being specifically targeted.
“In 2017 notifications were around three times higher than any previous season – including the pandemic season of 2009,” Mr Gregory said.
“Across NSW and Australia there were a lot more hospital admissions as a result … which we saw at hospitals locally too.
“So there’s two-fold pressure on the district’s health system – there’s more patients and many health professionals get the illness as well.”
There was currently no specific information on the general 2018 vaccine as yet, but Mr Gregory expected it to be available around April.
Mr Gregory said the 2017 vaccine may not have been as effective for a variety of reasons.
“It could have been because it was a more virulent flu strain and that it affected people of all ages more, rather than mainly the elderly,” he said.
“It could have been that there was a small uptake of the vaccine. Because even if the flu vaccine isn’t as efficient as we’d like – it’s not as efficient as other vaccines for measles and mumps for instance – people still benefit from having it as even if they do get the flu, the severity and length of their illness is reduced.
“And that means they are infectious for a shorter time, so there’s less chance of exposing other people.”
Meantime the Type A strain of the virus that was dominant early in the season was also quite variable, meaning previous immunity may not have been adequate.
The season also started earlier, and was longer than previous seasons; again ramping up the figures.
Mr Gregory said the statistics would also have risen due to improved testing and identifying of influenza, and better awareness among health professionals and within the community.