Flu shot in short supply

By David Kavanagh | posted on May 31, 2019

ALBANY pharmacies and medical centres are unsure whether additional shipments of influenza vaccinations will arrive anytime soon after more than 180 people were turned away or placed on waiting lists due to a shortage in the area.

This comes as Australia faces what some health experts have called the highest demand for flu vaccines seen in years.

While government-provided stocks reserved for at-risk people through the free National Immunisation Program (NIP) have been unaffected, many stocks supplied by private manufacturers and distributors are currently depleted.

Pharmacies such as Amcal+ Pharmacy Albany, Alliance Pharmacy Dog Rock and Albany Plaza Discount Drug Store expect to receive additional supply “sometime in June”.

Other pharmacies in the area have been unable to confirm whether more stock will arrive for this flu season.

Priceline Pharmacy Spencer Park pharmacist and proprietor Jane McLean said while some vaccines had been placed aside for those who had already booked appointments, the general batch had run out.

“It’s not that there wasn’t the supply or that the companies have made less, they’ve made more incrementally on last year,” she said.

“It’s just already all been used up.

“Hopefully we’ve got what’s called herd immunity in town, meaning that there’s enough people that have been vaccinated from the stock that we’ve already had to not be able to pass it around too much.”

General practitioner at Aberdeen Medical Centre Dr Toby Leach said the centre had run out of private stocks and couldn’t get any more from their supplier or from pharmacies.

“Our practice and probably every practice in town has still got supplies of the free government ones,” he said.

“They have to be reserved for those people who are at increased risk of dying from the flu.”

According to the Federal Department of Health, the NIP covers all people aged 65 years and older, pregnant women, all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people six months and over and those people six months and older with certain medical risk factors.

Dr Leach said the vaccine shortage was nationwide and resulted from a bad and early flu season and corresponding increase in demand for flu vaccines.

“There have been multiple deaths around Australia already due to the strains of flu going around this year, so people are responding and very wisely wanting to get themselves immunised,” he said.

Western Australia’s flu season generally peaks around August and September and people are encouraged to get their shots in May to account for that.

Data from the WA Department of Health’s statewide notifiable diseases weekly report showed 3013 cases of influenza had been reported this year in the week leading up to May 20.

This compared to 1151 WA cases in that same period last year and 624 cases in 2017.

The four weeks prior to May 20 also saw a total of 43 influenza cases reported in the Great Southern compared to only four cases during that period in 2018.

“It’s certainly been the highest demand season in my experience in recent years,” Dr Leach said, of the vaccines.

“I’ve spoken to a pharmacist today; I think they said they had 200 people on their waiting list who want to get a flu vaccine but they’re not yet available.

“It’s going to be a situation where demand continues to exceed supply.”

According to Dr Leach, vaccines are tailor-made each year to respond to newly mutated strains of influenza.

Virus strain A/H3N2, otherwise known as the Switzerland strain after the place in which it was first isolated, has accounted for the majority of cases in WA.

A spokesperson for the Federal Department of Health said the number of notifications this year has been greater week on week compared to previous years.

Recent figures from the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System show there had been just under 62,000 notifications and 139 influenza-related deaths nationwide by May 27, compared to about 14,000 notifications and 35 deaths in the same period in 2018.

According to the spokesperson, this does not mean the flu is more severe.

“There is no indication of the potential severity of the 2019 season at this time,” they said.

“The current case fatality rate … is consistent with previous years, considering the high number of cases in January to May.”

Ms McLean said it was unsure whether the early onset of flu season meant it was going to peter out soon or whether there was going be a higher peak than normal in August or September.

“Tell people not to panic; hopefully there is herd immunity,” she said.

“If people get [flu symptoms] they should get a mask on and get themselves either to the doctor or the hospital to be treated for that.”

Typical flu symptoms in adults can include a sudden onset of fever, headaches, sore throat, a runny nose, a cough, fatigue, general aches and pains, and nose, throat and lung congestion.

“If you’re eligible for a free government shot you should go and make an appointment with the GP and have it as soon as possible,” Dr Leach said.

Anyone seeking health advice can contact the 24-hour Health Direct helpline on 1800 022 222.