It’s nearly time to roll up your sleeve, brace yourself for a small prick, and hope the nurse or doctor offers you a lollypop for your troubles.
The annual flu vaccine will soon roll out across general practices, pharmacies, community health clinics and some workplaces and schools.
In some pharmacies, the flu vaccine is already on offer. But the Australian Medical Association (AMA) has urged people to hold off on getting this year’s vaccine, warning some pharmacies are offering vaccinations too early.
“We are concerned when pharmacies are out there advertising early flu shots at a time that might not be clinically appropriate,” AMA national president Michael Gannon told ABC News.
“People who are vaccinated too early in autumn might have lost protection by late in the spring when the virus has mutated.”
So, when is the right time to get your flu shot? And is it necessary for everyone?
The Australian Government recommends everyone from six months old wishing to protect themselves against the flu should get immunised.
Vaccination is a safe and effective way to protect yourself from flu; people who get vaccinated are at lower risk of getting an infection (and developing serious disease) than those who do not.
Bastian Seidel, President of Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP), said it’s important for people to get vaccinated whether they are healthy or at high risk.
Getting a flu shot also means you help to protect other people, including those who are too sick or too young to be vaccinated, as well as vulnerable groups such as babies, people over 65 years and pregnant women.
The more people who are vaccinated in the community, the less likely the flu will spread.
It’s free for those at risk
Under the Federal Government’s National Immunisation Program, there are some people that are eligible for a free flu vaccine because they are most at risk of poor outcomes. This includes:
- Pregnant women (at any stage of pregnancy)
- People aged 65 years and older
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged six months to five years
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 15 years and older
- People aged six months and over with medical conditions that mean they have a higher risk of getting serious disease (such as diabetes, severe asthma, lung or heart disease)
Several state and territory governments are also offering free flu jabs to children between six months and five years old, including in New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia and the ACT.
Dr Michael Gannon, president of the AMA, says vaccination rates among small children and pregnant women are particularly low in Australia.
“It’s one of the worst performing areas. Only around 50 per cent of pregnant women get the vaccine, and we think that’s an appalling low number,” Dr Gannon said.
In most cases the flu vaccine is available through your local GP. Immunisation services can also be accessed at community health clinics, Aboriginal Medical Services, through school-based immunisation programs, and at some pharmacies and workplaces.
When to get the jab
The best time to get the flu jab can be difficult to predict because the peak period of flu activity varies year by year, said Professor Raina MacIntyre from the University of New South Wales.
“Generally, the peak flu season is around July and August, but it’s variable — sometimes it can start in May, and sometimes the peak happens in September,” Professor MacIntyre said.
This is important because research shows the effectiveness of the flu vaccine may begin to wane after three to four months.
“It’s a trade-off really, between getting the ideal immunity [early on] and not missing the peak of flu activity,” Professor MacIntyre said.
According to the Department of Health, the government-funded seasonal flu vaccines will be available nationally from mid-April.
This matches recommendations from both the AMA and RACGP, who say the best time to get the flu shot is towards the end of April and into the beginning the May.
“This should really cover the vast majority of Australians,” RACGP president Dr Bastian Seidel said.
AMA president Dr Michael Gannon agreed, and said healthy people should get vaccinated at the same time as those eligible for a free vaccination.
It doesn’t provide total protection
The flu vaccine doesn’t provide complete protection, but any prevention is better than no prevention, Professor MacIntyre said.
“In healthy adults, [the vaccine] should be 60 to 70 per cent effective, which is pretty good,” she said.
For people with impaired immunity — such as older people and those with chronic illness — the vaccine is less effective and doesn’t elicit such a strong immune response.
The new enhanced vaccines are specifically targeted at the strains that were prevalent in last year’s deadly flu outbreak.
Getting vaccinated every year is important because the most common strains of the influenza virus change every year.
“So the vaccine that you get this year won’t necessarily protect you against the different virus that may be circulating next year,” Professor MacIntyre said.
If you are in a high risk category or have concerns or questions about the flu vaccine this year, it’s best to speak with you GP, Dr Seidel said.
“They can very specifically give you advice that works best for you.”