Flu vaccine shortage hits children and the elderly

What goes into the flu vaccine?

Authorities hope a new and improved vaccine, plus two new 'super vaccines', will help Australia avoid a repeat of last year's record flu season.

Victorian children are going without flu shots and vaccines designed for the elderly have been almost exhausted, as a national shortage bites.

As of last week, there were supply restrictions on every type of influenza vaccine, including the FluQuadri Junior shot for babies and toddlers.

Stocks of two enhanced vaccines recommended for patients aged over 65 are also becoming hard to find and, once completely gone, will not be available for the rest of the 2018 flu season.

Jess Venn has been unsuccessfully trying to get a second and final shot for her three children, Matilda, Poppy and Kit.
Jess Venn has been unsuccessfully trying to get a second and final shot for her three children, Matilda, Poppy and Kit. Photo: Joe Armao

However, fewer than one in five seniors still need to receive their shot.

The unprecedented demand for vaccines has prompted hospitals to restrict their own staff vaccination programs to employees who need it most, such as those working in intensive care units.

While shortages have been hailed as a sign of the success of campaigns to get more people immunised, those now struggling to get vaccines are angry.

“It’s a colossal failure,” said Werribee mother Jess Venn.

The former school teacher said she took her doctor’s advice not to get her three daughters aged three to eight vaccinated back in April, to ensure their immunisation lasted well into the flu season.

They went back to get the first of two shots late in May, but come this month, her GP had run out of stock, and the children were left only half vaccinated.

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Mrs Venn said she called seven different pharmacies in the Werribee region. All were out of stock.

She also called two major hospitals, which were restricting their vaccines for vulnerable patients.

Her local council may be able to vaccinate the youngest child at their next immunisation clinic, because her age puts her within a priority group. But the older children miss out.

The issue is an emotional one for the Venn family because they were all struck down by influenza last year. Mrs Venn said her oldest child, then seven, was unable to hold down water for three days and had a temperature of 41 degrees.

“You try to do everything right and you still miss out,” Mrs Venn said. “I just feel like children are really vulnerable here and parents are really scared.”

Kim Sampson, chief executive of the Immunisation Coalition, said the dwindling stock of vaccines is not evenly dispersed throughout the community.

“We have areas that seem to have plentiful supply and then we have other areas that cannot get any vaccine at all,” he said.

Some vaccines designed for children are expected to come onto the market soon, while 500,000 additional adult vaccines to be manufactured by Seqirus in Parkville won’t be available until the middle of the July.

Nationwide, demand for the flu vaccine has jumped 32 per cent this year. A record 3 million people have been vaccinated in Victoria alone. But the National Immunisation program only planned for a 10 per cent increase in vaccines, and tensions have emerged about who is to blame.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt wrote to his Victorian counterpart Jill Hennessy last month, saying that it was the responsibility of the states to forecast the supply of flu vaccines.

“I have been advised that Victorian estimates were significantly lower than requirements, with only 1,232,560 doses requested for the entire 2018 season and 1,318,535 doses received by 25 May 2018,” Mr Hunt wrote.

But Australia's Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy said “no one could have predicted a 32 per cent increase”.

A spokesman for the Victoria Department of Health and Human Services said the number of vaccines ordered was agreed to between the states and Commonwealth.

Victoria's opposition health spokeswoman Mary Wooldridge said: “We need longer term commitment and planning on this issue to ensure projections and orders adequately reflect the Victorian population’s needs".