Here's why you have to wait for a flu shot: vaccines hit 'true shortage' levels

SHORTAGE: COVID-19 coupled with last year's terrible flu season has led to shortages of influenza vaccines in the public and private sectors.
SHORTAGE: COVID-19 coupled with last year's terrible flu season has led to shortages of influenza vaccines in the public and private sectors.

Australian pharmacies are reporting an "exponential increase in demand" for flu vaccines, according to the Pharmacy Guild of Australia, forcing many Australians to go without.

A spokesperson for the guild believed that pharmacies have either received their full amount of pre-ordered stock already or will do so in the next couple of weeks.

"But the problem is that some pharmacies, anecdotally, are telling us that many have vaccinated more people against the flu in the month of April than they did in the entire season last year," the spokesperson said.

This demand, the spokesperson said, has been driven by two main factors.

"The first is that COVID-19 has focused people's minds on infection, prevention of infection and the fact it would be a bad time to have the flu if you were also to contract COVID - it's a bad combination.

"Secondly, it was quite a bad flu season last year," the spokesperson said.

They explained that flu vaccines were produced by manufacturers based on pre-orders, with local pharmacies ordering supplies last October.

"Of course, at that time nobody had ever heard of COVID-19, so nobody quite foresaw the level of demand."

The Department of Health has revealed that from March 1 to May 12 this year, 6,489,298 doses of seasonal influenza vaccines have been administered and entered into the Australian Immunisation Register.

"This is almost double the amount for the same period last year, which was 3,256,348 doses," a department spokesperson said.

The Australian Government through the National Immunisation Program provides a free seasonal influenza vaccine to those most at risk of severe influenza and its complications, however, doctors are also reporting low to zero stocks.

Australian Medical Association NSW president Dr Danielle McMullen said initially problems with the supply chain and logistics due to the pandemic were having an impact but now Australia was seeing "true shortages".

"They (the government) tried, they said they ordered more than in previous years but obviously when we were producing and ordering vaccines that was all pre-COVID-19.

Doctors are just as frustrated as the general public by the difficulties in getting vaccinated but if you can find one, get it, if you can't find one wait patiently.

"The good news is that so far, thanks to social distancing measures, we've seen less flu than we would usually expect at this time of year.

"The advice to the public is that there may be some more availability of flu vaccines as the season progresses and that it's never too late to be vaccinated."

For the Australian market this year, originally 13.5 million doses of seasonal influenza vaccines were secured - up from 13.2 million doses in 2019 and 11 million in 2018.

The NSW Health Department spokesperson said the Australian Government had now secured additional doses of seasonal influenza vaccines, bringing the total number of vaccines available for Australians to over 17.5 million.

"We expect these additional doses of vaccine to be available to GPs and community pharmacies over May and June." they said.

Until then, Dr McMullen is urging people to keep in touch with their doctor about vaccine availability.

"Doctors are just as frustrated as the general public by the difficulties in getting vaccinated but if you can find one, get it, if you can't find one, wait patiently.

"Everyone's out, which I was surprised about."

The state of play in Victoria

In Victoria, Opposition MPs are taking the shortage further, putting pressure on the Victorian government to guarantee flu shots after hearing that "the cupboard is bare" at pharmacies.

South West Coast MP Roma Britnell said she was still waiting to hear an answer.

"I asked the Minister for Health about the availability of flu shots in rural and regional Victoria when Parliament was last in session after several doctors and constituents told me there was problems getting access to the important vaccination," she said this week.

She said it was a "major issue" that people were trying to follow advice and get the flu shot, only to be told one was not available.

A spokesman from the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services said demand for the flu vaccine was higher than it had ever been and the coronavirus pandemic was putting pressure on stocks of the private market flu vaccine.

"We started distributing the vaccine for Victorians eligible under the National Immunisation Program about two weeks ahead of other jurisdictions this year and we've already distributed more than 2.1 million doses, despite the added challenges of high demand for all vaccines," he said.

The Victorian government has put aside an additional $24.5 billion in emergency funding to fight the coronavirus and set up the state's recovery from the pandemic over the next two years.

Benambra MP Bill Tilley told Parliament he wanted some of that money put towards flu vaccinations.

"Perhaps put your hand into the $24.5 billion piggy bank to find some more flu shots. Like most of the state, my constituents are being told by their GPs and chemists that the cupboard is bare and no more are coming," he said.

This story Here's why you have to wait for a flu shot first appeared on The Canberra Times.