This year, for the first time, Australia will be managing COVID-19 and an influenza season. As we move into the winter 2022 season it is increasingly important that people protect themselves from both COVID-19 and influenza.
Over the past two years influenza cases were very low in Australia because of limitations on international travel and a range of other measures such as social distancing and mask wearing, but with restrictions now eased, influenza cases are rising.
Whilst this rapid rise in case appears to be occurring earlier than an average influenza season, the timing of the peak and size of the influenza season is difficult to predict.
Annual vaccination is the most important measure to prevent influenza and its complications. It is recommended for all people aged 6 months and over (unless contraindicated). While younger, otherwise healthy people will usually, but not always, have a milder illness and recover within a week, vaccination can protect against infection or against developing more severe disease if infected.
I encourage everyone to continue to practice all the prevention measures we have become used to, including covering coughs and sneezes, regular hand washing, wearing a face mask when physical distancing is not possible, and staying home when unwell.
The Australian Government, through the National Immunisation Program (NIP) provides a free seasonal influenza vaccine to those most at risk of complications from influenza. Enough vaccines have been secured in 2022 to cover all at risk groups eligible for a government funded influenza vaccine through the NIP.
Seasonal influenza vaccines under the NIP, including to GPs, pharmacies and other vaccination providers, are now available.
The NIP provides a free seasonal influenza vaccination to the following groups who are at higher risk of complications from influenza:
- pregnant women
- First Nations people aged 6 months and over
- people aged 65 years and older
- people aged 6 months and over with medical conditions that predispose them to severe influenza
- children aged between 6 months and less than 5 years.
We are seeing that vaccination rates are lower in children under 5 this year, putting them at particular risk, as some children will not have been exposed to either influenza or vaccine. Studies show that influenza vaccination can significantly reduce a child’s risk of being hospitalised and becoming severely ill from influenza.
If you are pregnant you can protect yourself and your newborn child by being vaccinated at any stage during pregnancy, particularly in the second or third trimester during the influenza season.
I urge all Australians in these at-risk groups who are not already vaccinated to get their influenza vaccination as soon as they are able.
Along with influenza vaccination it is important to stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccinations – including boosters. Influenza vaccines can be given on the same day as a COVID 19 vaccine. Studies show that co-administration is safe and produces a good immune response. If you have had a recent COVID-19 infection you should delay your next scheduled COVID-19 vaccination for 3 months to ensure maximum protection.
In addition, ATAGI has expanded their criteria for people they recommend receive a winter dose.
This recommendation has been expanded to include people aged 16-64 with:
- Immunocompromising conditions.
- Specific chronic inflammatory conditions.
- Chronic lung disease.
- Chronic liver disease.
- Severe chronic kidney disease.
- Chronic neurological disease.
- Diabetes requiring medication.
- Chronic cardiac disease
- Disability with significant or complex health needs or multiple comorbidities which increase risk of poor outcomes from COVID-19.
- Severe obesity.
- Severe underweight.
With the increasing number of respiratory illnesses circulating in the community now, if you are feeling mild to moderately unwell, I encourage people to seek advice from their primary health provider if they are concerned before presenting at an emergency department.
Telehealth appointments are available via most general practitioners.
People can also contact healthdirect for free 24-hour support – the National Coronavirus Helpline on 1800 020 080 for free COVID-19 assessment and advice, and the Health Information and Advice Service on 1800 022 222 for all other health advice and support (including for flu).
A free symptom checker is also available at www.healthdirect.gov.au/symptom-checker.