Childhood influenza vaccination rates improves with better access
More children across Australia are being vaccinated against the flu since funding was expanded and access widened under the National Immunisation Program (NIP), but more strategies need to be employed to improve and maintain coverage.
A collaborative research paper, published in the Medical Journal of Australia found flu vaccine uptake in children aged 6–59 months in 2020 shows a vast improvement from low vaccination rates in the years prior.
Dr Samantha Carlson, a Postdoctoral Researcher with the Wesfarmers Centre of Vaccines and Infectious Diseases at the Telethon Kids Institute in Perth, said before COVID-19, flu was responsible for greater overall health impact than any other vaccine preventable disease in Australia.
It is recommended for all Australians aged 6 months or more to receive annual flu vaccination, with free flu vaccines for the highest risk groups provided by the National Immunisation Program (NIP).
“Historically, Australian influenza notification rates have been highest in children, particularly in those aged less than 2 years. The highest annual hospitalisation rates for influenza overall have been recorded in children aged less than 6 months, followed by children aged 6–23 months.
“Although paediatric hospitalisation rates are high, annual rates of influenza-associated deaths in children are, thankfully, low.”
In 2018, after a severe flu season in 2017 with record numbers of children hospitalised, all Australian states and territories, except the Northern Territory began funding influenza vaccination for all children aged 6 to 59 months, with the NT following in 2019.
The NIP expanded in 2019 to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of all ages (closing the funding gap for those aged 5 to < 15 years), and in 2020, influenza vaccine was added to the NIP for all children aged 6–59 months.
“While the focus has rightly been on COVID-19 and ensuring Western Australians are protected from the pandemic, it’s important that – as a community – we don’t lose sight of other infectious diseases,” said Associate Professor Chris Blyth, Co-Director of the Wesfarmers Centre of Vaccines and Infectious Diseases.
“It’s pleasing to see that, with the expansion of the NIP, more children are being vaccinated against the flu. High vaccination rates mean less hospitalisations but as we see less children being vaccinated, we will see younger children being hospitalised.
"It's really important that we're able to prevent these serious infections in young children and keep them as healthy as possible and out of hospital. Our best bet is to prevent flu from happening in the first place; vaccination is the most effective preventative measure.
We need strategies that make vaccination simple. These could include personalised vaccination reminders, provision of greater access to vaccination services, and tools to assist healthcare providers to promote influenza vaccine.