Article for Mirror June 8

Free Flu Vaccines for All!

The Victorian government, along with many other states and territories, have made the influenza vaccine free for all people. 

In addition to the government subsidised vaccine available free each year to those 65 or over, and children (under 5 and over 6 months) and those with chronic diseases (* see the list at the end of article for the full list) it is now free for everyone else as well. This is in response to the surge in ‘flu that we are seeing this year across Australia, a ‘flu season like of which we haven’t experienced since before the pandemic.

It is an attempt to try and relieve some of the pressure on the over-capacity hospital system which is struggling under the combination of Omicron and ‘flu; we have all seen the news reports detailing the problems that have occurred as a result.

The Medical Centre has opened up an initial Saturday clinic on June 18, specifically for those patients who are eligible under this scheme, that is, for patients who are between 5 and 64 years old. 

This will be held at the Medical Centre (NOT the drive through) – just ring the clinic for an appointment.

On the Flu-tracker website it appears that Victoria is just behind NT in leading percentages of ‘flu cases per population in the nation at present, and the gradient is heading up. The strong advice is to get vaccinated if you haven’t already done so.

The Respiratory clinic has continued to see lots of patients with COVID and there is no doubt that there is great deal of it in the community. 

“Why, when we have such good vaccination rates?” is a question often asked.

There are multiple reasons (and here are just a few) that are being found out as further research and analysis occurs:

First the virus.

… Omicron is so very contagious. In fact, it is said to be one of the most infectious agents ever known. And a whole lot more infectious than Delta. For instance, it has been estimated that in an unvaccinated and uninfected population, a person with Omicron would transmit to 20 others, compared to Delta which would infect ‘only’ 5.

… There is more asymptomatic infections with Omicron which facilitates transmission as some people won’t know they have it and so spread it not knowing. 

… Studies have also shown Omicron infects and multiplies in the upper airways 70 times faster than Delta. 

The good news is Omicron definitely causes less severe disease than Delta. Part of this may be due to Omicron being less able to infect lungs as it does the upper airways, which accounts for the risk of hospitalisation and ICU admissions from Omicron being 40-80% lower than with Delta. Overall the risk of death is about 60% less with Omicron than with Delta.

It is due to the sheer weight of numbers of people getting Omicron that the hospitals are so full.

Second the vaccines.

… They have never been terribly great at reducing the chance of infection, especially after only two doses of vaccines and particularly for Omicron. They were developed for Delta (although Pfizer and Moderna have developed an Omicron-specific vaccine which they are about to test in clinical trials and could be available in the second half of 2022). Two doses of either mRNA vaccine reduces the risk of infection after 20 weeks by only 10%; two doses of AstraZeneca basically provide no protection against infection after 20 weeks.

… What they are still good at is preventing severe disease-you are 35% less likely to be admitted to hospital 6 months post second vaccination. But this too is only half as effective as the protection they offered against Delta.

Getting people to get their third dose has been a challenge and yet these low rates increase markedly post boosters. For instance, it is estimated that the risk of hospitalisation from Omicron is reduced by over 80% ten weeks or more post booster. This is the reason why if you haven’t had it, you are encouraged to get your booster.

In other news, you may have noticed that the Medical Centre has started work on increasing its parking capacity for patients and earth-work has begun behind the existing carpark. We are hoping that this will almost double the number of car spots and go some way to relieving the congestion that at times exists. 

Finally, on July 1 we will be increasing most of our fees for consultations. This has not happened for awhile and it is a decision not taken lightly. Prior to the election, AMA president Dr Omar Khorshidsaid ‘GPs have not received the support they deserve or need from successive governments.’ and noted that ‘general practice needed serious reform after years of neglect’. We hope for improvements with the change of government, for the reality is that medicare increases have not kept up with rising costs for many years.

{ * For completeness here is the full list of ‘free’ ‘flu vaccines available each year:

  • people aged 6 months to less than 5 years 
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 6 months and older 
  • pregnant women (at any stage of pregnancy) 
  • people aged 65 years and older 
  • people aged 6 months and older with the risk conditions putting them at increased risk of severe influenza and its complications }