Over the last week, several media articles have noted that Australia’s annual influenza season “started unusually early” and that “there are more than 144,000 confirmed cases, showing the severity of the virus this year. 

According to ‘Voice of America, “this year is likely to be one of Australia’s most severe for influenza, and the government, worried about a vaccine shortage, has ordered 400,000 more doses.”

“Multiple flu viruses circulate each year, and they are broadly grouped into two types: A and B. A potentially potent strain may well be to blame for an early start to Australia’s influenza season. Experts hope it will end before its usual peak in August, the last month of winter.”

Professor Brendan Murphy. Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, said to ‘Voice of America’: “We recommend everybody get vaccinated and be prepared.”

Australia suffered its worst flu season on record in 2017, when more than 250,000 cases were reported. More than 1,100 people died, slightly less than those killed in road accidents per year.

Flu cases in children on the increase

Additionally, according to the ABC Sydney News report on Sunday July 21, “figures from Victoria’s Health Department show there have been 416 cases of flu in children under the age of 12 months so far this year, compared to just 29 last year.”

“More than 340 babies in Victoria have been hospitalised with flu this season and nearly 500 adults have also needed hospital care. Children aged between six months and five years of age are eligible for a free vaccination. Brett Sutton, Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, emphasised serious illnesses in babies too young for the flu vaccine could be avoided if a mother was vaccinated while she was pregnant.”

“Vaccination is certainly important. Vaccination in pregnancy is safe and effective.”

New mums seek advice on safeguarding their babies from illness

In ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’, an article by Sophie Aubrey on Sunday July 21 revealed that new parents often wonder how to deal with visitors, especially those who are not vaccinated for whooping cough and the flu. 

She wrote that many parents asked if they “should be strict with all family and friends, no exceptions?… Should they offer to pay for other people’s vaccines? Perhaps it is easier to avoid the headaches and just endure isolation for a while?”

The article indicates that “the most effective way of parenting their new baby from whooping cough and the flu is within their (parents’ control) – and it comes in the form of maternal vaccination.

The article states: “Australian health guidelines recommend women are vaccinated for the flu and whooping cough – both highly contagious respiratory illnesses – during pregnancy. The vaccines protect the mother but also her baby, as she will develop antibodies that transfer via the placenta. This is crucial because an infant cannot be vaccinated for whooping cough until at least six weeks of age, and the flu until they are six months old.”

Associate Professor Margie Danchin said: “Maternal vaccination is particularly pertinent this year, where the flu has so far killed 346 Australians.” 

“Health department data shows the first six months of 2019 saw more than 121,800 laboratory-confirmed cases of the flu. This is seven times more than the same period last year,” the article stated.

An immunisation rate of 95 per cent is considered necessary to provide ‘herd’ immunity to even the most infectious vaccine-preventable diseases in our community, providing protection to those who are too young to be vaccinated, pregnant women, children with immune disorders and some cancer patients, for whom these diseases can be extremely serious (World Health Organisation 2019). 
Given the attention that Australian Federal and State Governments pay to increasing Australian vaccination rates for influenza and other diseases, we also need to provide increased support to other countries to raise their vaccination rates. This support would further reduce avoidable childhood death and disease, and recognises that increased travel and contact between people from different countries means that diseases are not contained by national borders.