Health experts say this year’s influenza vaccine has proved poor, amid a worse-than-usual flu season, and are urging a rethink with “all options on the table”.
Infectious diseases experts and state public health officials said the vaccine selected this year appeared to have been less effective than usual, particularly against the prevalent H3 strain of influenza A, which mostly affects the elderly but also the young.
“All the data coming in suggests that maybe it isn’t as good a vaccine as it has been in previous years,” said Allen Cheng, director of infection prevention at The Alfred Hospital.
The comments by Professor Cheng, also professor of infectious diseases at Monash University, were echoed by Victoria’s Acting Chief Medical Officer Brett Sutton. “The vaccine strains in the vaccine this year have been moderate but not a fantastic match with the circulating strains,” he said recently.
Professor Cheng said notified cases — about 135,000 — were the “tip of the iceberg” as most cases were not confirmed by testing.
A flu monitoring system by a group of hospitals had recorded as many as 2000 admissions attributed to the virus. This meant the number of flu admissions nationally would be about 15,000.
That was the kind of figure normally seen in November, at the end of the flu season, said Professor Cheng. “And we’re only in September. So it’s still worth people getting vaccinated.”
He said even at less than 50 per cent effectiveness, vaccination was worthwhile, particularly for the vulnerable.
Decisions on which strains to include in a vaccine were “very complicated” and involved an Australian expert committee examining recommendations from the World Health Organisation.
Given the severely of this flu season, Professor Cheng suggested Australia consider including higher dosage vaccines. “One of the drug companies has a high-dose vaccine that they are thinking of bringing to Australia that is like getting four doses,” he said.
Another practice overseas was adding adjuvants to vaccines to better stimulate the immune response. “I think everything should be on the table,” he said.
The federal Health Department warned the high levels of flu would likely continue for a few weeks and said there had been almost 2½ times more laboratory-confirmed cases this year compared to this time last year. But it said the current vaccine was “a moderate to good match for circulating virus strains”.
At least 14 people have died in Victoria and Tasmania.
Health authorities also confirmed shortages of flu drug Tamiflu, mostly at chemists, but said supplies were being replenished.
Additional reporting: AAP