Flu vaccine hesitancy

Controversy surrounding COVID vaccines may be undermining the uptake of this year’s flu shot according to a US sensitivity analysis, which found that up to 60% of the variation in flu vaccinations could be explained by a state’s COVID vaccine rates.

The study, published June 16th in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that the polarizing nature of COVID vaccination had contributed to variable state-wide vaccine uptake that ranged from 50% to 80% as of January 2022.

Significantly, the team, led by Dr Richard Leuchter from the University of California’s David Geffen School of Medicine, found that during both the 2020–2021 and 2021–2022 influenza seasons, flu vaccine uptake had uniformly decreased among children.

“It is alarming that controversy surrounding COVID-19 vaccination may be undermining separate public health efforts that save thousands of lives each year,” Dr Leuchter said.

“Many Americans who never before declined a routine, potentially life-saving vaccine have started to do so.

“This supports what I have seen in my clinical practice and suggests that information and policies specific to COVID-19 vaccines may be eroding more general faith in medicine and our government’s role in public health.”

The findings come as the WA Health Department announces an extension of the state’s free influenza vaccination program to the end of July, with only some 30% of West Australians getting jabbed so far.

RACGP Vice-President Dr Bruce Willett said that data from the Australian Immunisation Register (AIR) showed that 9,227,202 doses of seasonal influenza vaccines were administered by June 19, 2022, compared to around 7.8 million doses for the same time in 2021, and 8.8 million doses in 2020.

“However, we must keep in mind that pandemic restriction meant influenza wasn’t circulating in the community in the last two years,” Dr Willett said.

“While most people are familiar and comfortable with the annual influenza vaccine, GPs are saying they are seeing some vaccine fatigue, [and] we have been encouraging people to get their flu jab with this in mind.

“Unfortunately, vaccination rates among children under five remain low, which is very concerning because flu is a serious risk to this age group.

“We have seen significant hospitalisations of children under five around Australia, due to the fact that babies born during the pandemic have never been in contact with the influenza virus and have no immunity.”

On the 22nd of June, the RACGP welcomed a new $11 million government campaign to encourage people to get vaccinated for both COVID and influenza this winter, launched amidst high transmission of COVID and flu in communities across Australia.

RACGP President Adj. Professor Karen Price said that the rise in case numbers was affecting patients of all ages and placing tremendous strain on the nation’s health system.

“It’s vital that we don’t underestimate the flu. Remember, it is not your common cold. We suspected that this would be a bad flu season and it has turned out to be the case. There is limited immunity because with our borders slammed shut for two years the virus did not circulate,” Professor Price said.

“There is no need for unnecessary alarm, but we must significantly boost flu vaccine uptake. Even young and otherwise healthy people can become seriously ill and end up in hospital with the flu, so please, get vaccinated to help keep yourself and the broader community safe.”