On the back of an “unprecedented” flu season, the state government recently announced $200 million in funding to help hospitals and general practitioners treat a record number of patients.
There have been more than 65,000 laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza across the state this year and 150 deaths, including that of a 43-year-old Latrobe Regional Hospital staffer – who had been vaccinated – in June.
The most recent weekly influenza report from the Victorian department of health indicated there had been 2967 reported cases in Gippsland for the year to October 12, compared to 311 for the same time last year.
Federation University adjunct senior research fellow Dr Alan Hampson said the flu was now a year-round phenomenon which demanded government intervention.
“The season started a lot earlier than we’re used to and the level of summer activity has been increasing each year, which encourages people to think of it not so much as a season but something that is around all the time,” Dr Hampson said.
“The flu has put an enormous strain on healthcare facilities and we’re finding that around September hospitals go into bypass because people are presenting with flu and staff are struck down by it.
“This was a big year, and last year was a very mild year comparatively and that really does get people talking.” Dr Hampson, who has 50 years experience working with influenza, said there were limitations around current research into vaccinations because of the “unpredictable” nature of the virus.
“Vaccines take a long time to make and the virus mutates and changes every year,” he said.
“It takes six months to make a vaccine and from the time the World Health Organisation has looked at the strains and decided what they think is appropriate for use in the community, there is time for the virus to mutate beyond that.”
While there are now stronger vaccines available for use in older adults, Dr Hampson estimated the flu vaccine, on average, had a “reduced efficacy of about 60 per cent”.
“We do see a lot of quite ill people who don’t appear to have underlying problems and they’ve suddenly become very ill,” he said.
“There’s a belief out there that influenza and the common cold are the same thing but influenza can be a life-threatening a illness.”
Speaking at a seminar in Traralgon recently, Dr Hampson also touched on ground-breaking research being conducted in the United States where a cell-grown vaccine has been registered for use.
“It has been used with varying degrees of success but this is the sort of vaccine we may see coming in the future,” he said.
“The holy grail with influenza is to find a vaccine where it doesn’t matter if the virus changes and the latest estimate suggests it’s about five years away, but that is a best-case estimate.”
As laboratory-confirmed cases of flu “tail off” for the season, Dr Hampson maintained that everyone – especially pregnant women, children, the elderly and those with underlying health conditions – should consider being vaccinated.
“For people who haven’t been vaccinated, they should definitely have a look at what happened this year and make their mind up and do something about it next year,” he said.
“Immunity generally peaks around two to four weeks after vaccination, so for some people, the later you vaccinate the better.
“But people are crazy not to take up that offer because it could save your life.”