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Start flu vaccinations as soon as they are available: RACGP

‘With COVID-19 spreading across Australia, this year it is more important than ever to receive your flu vaccination.’

Flu shot
The current advice is to start as soon as the vaccines arrive, given the flu is already circulating

In a normal year, it is best to wait until the middle of May for the flu vaccination.

It was only last year that RACGP President warned having a flu shot too early means people could be unprotected at the end of the season.

But this is not a normal year.

The new advice given at last month’s National General Practice Roundtable is simple: start as soon as the vaccines arrive, given the flu is already circulating.

The reason is that the regular flu season may coincide with the peak of the current coronavirus pandemic, potentially stressing Australia’s health system even further.

‘With COVID-19 [coronavirus] spreading across Australia, this year it is more important than ever to receive your flu vaccination,’ Dr Penny Burns, who sits on the roundtable alongside other primary healthcare representatives and Department of Health officials, said.

‘The last thing we want to see is patients infected with both influenza and [the coronavirus].

‘The RACGP recommends members of the community receive the right flu vaccination for their age group now through their usual GP.

‘It will be important for GPs to be ready to roll out the immunisations as fast as possible. I know in our practice we will be rolling it out for our elderly as soon as we receive it.’

Dr Burns said flu vaccinations will help reduce the strain on the healthcare system as it deals with coronavirus.

People over the age of 65 can access the special adjuvanted quadrivalent influenza vaccine through their GP from mid-April. Everyone else can access the normal flu vaccine as it becomes available.

From 1 May, the flu vaccine will be mandatory for people wanting to visit an aged care facility.

Some states have brought this forward to the start of April, with Western Australia reportedly bringing the over-65s’ vaccine forward, while New South Wales is planning to vaccinate aged care facility residents next week.

Health authorities recommend an annual influenza vaccination for everyone over six months, and strongly recommend it for at-risk groups, such as:

  • people aged 65 and older
  • people with chronic conditions like heart, lung or neurological diseases
  • pregnant women
  • children aged six months to under five years.

At-risk groups are covered by the National Immunisation Program (NIP).

The Federal Government has moved to secure Australia’s largest ever supply of flu vaccines after last year’s horror season.

Some states also have additional flu programs alongside the NIP; Western Australia, for example, is set to launch a new free flu shot program for primary school aged children.

The latest data from the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System shows laboratory-confirmed flu rates dropping in March, after a high rate in February sparked warnings it could be another record flu season like 2019.

The 2019 season saw more than 300,000 people seeking care, and more than 900 flu-related deaths.

To date this year, there have been 17,910 confirmed cases.

As Australia moves to increasingly more stringent social distancing policies, influenza transmission could be reduced as a side-benefit.

University of New South Wales (UNSW) Professor of Biosecurity Raina McIntyre recently noted in The Conversation that ‘social distancing – such as maintaining spatial separation from other people, avoiding crowds, working from home – will also reduce the risk of both infections’.

This article has been updated following subsequent advice indicating that booster vaccinations should not be recommend at this time.