A doctor in Australia has sparked debate at a recent GPs Down Under Conference on the Gold Coast by claiming the influenza vaccine had been oversold in Australia.
Dr Chris Del Mar, Professor of Public Health at Bond University, claimed the seasonal flu vaccines only reduced the rate of laboratory confirmed influenza by no more than two per cent.
Speaking to Starts at 60, Dr Del Mar explained other preventative measures could be just as effective as the vaccine.
“Probably the more effective things to do than the vaccine is physical barriers,” he explained. “That means hand washing and perhaps wearing a mask if you want to avoid catching an infection and certainly avoiding crowds and people who might be infected.
“Really, it’s quite difficult for individuals to do single-handed, but it’s really a plea for a greater discussion amongst public health experts.”
He argued the vaccine shouldn’t be over-promoted and that health professionals should look at other ways of managing upper respiratory infections, of which influenza is just one.
His views contradicted those of AMA President Tony Bartone, who told Starts at 60 the influenza vaccination was important in minimising the spread of a deadly virus. He described it as a virus that can “kill many thousands of Australians each year” and lead to hospitalisation in intensive care. Still, he agreed that preventative measures such as hand washing were vital in protecting against the virus.
“When it comes to minimising the spread of influenza, prevention and preventative barrier techniques are extremely effective and should be practiced by all, especially at the height of epidemics and especially in very populated places,” he told Starts at 60. “However, it’s not a case of one or the other. Both are very important. Both play a very significant role, especially for people over the age of 65 and especially those with any other chronic medical conditions.”
Meanwhile, Professor Gerard Gill, Clinical Professor at Deakin University, told Starts at 60 the influenza vaccine lowers the severity of any infection.
“Influenza is responsible for cardiac-related deaths some months after infection and can tip older frail persons into a situation where residential aged care is required,” he explained. “My take is that influenza is a serious illness which kills and increases the disability of older people. Having the flu vaccine offers some protection, but this is not overwhelmingly protective.
“If there is a flu outbreak hand washing before eating and wearing a mask offer some protection. Once infected, anti-flu virus medication is not likely to impact on the duration of the illness, but may reduce the risk of infecting others and is therefore, suggested in nursing homes where the flu breaks out.”
Dr Bartone said having a flu vaccination would go a long way to ensure people don’t succumb to picking up infection.
“The immunisation that’s out this year is a significantly stronger batch, a different kettle of fish to last year’s,” he added. “It is expected to have much more significant efficacy effects than last year’s version. I really do recommend if anyone is worried, please do see your family doctor, have the conversation and the opportunity to discuss the situation with them.”
Dr Del Mar said his views towards the vaccine were actually based on research he’d been part of.
“I’m the coordinating editor of a group called Cochrane and I look after the Acute Respiratory Infections part of it,” he explained. “To cut a long story short, there isn’t great evidence that vaccine is that effective. On the other hand, there’s another Cochrane review which shows physical methods are much more effective. That’s what we think people should be concentrating on more.”
He also says that despite his views, he’s not an anti-vaxxer.
“I’m not an anti-vaxxer,” he told Starts at 60. “I’m a GP and I vaccination children 19 to the dozen. For influenza vaccine, which is a completely different kettle of fish, it’s a much less effective vaccine. It has to be repeated every year and there’s good evidence that it fades after a couple of months.”
Dr Del Mar also described it as a “hopeless vaccine”.
“We need a better vaccine before I’m going to be promoting it much more heavily to my patients,” he added.
Dr Bartone said Influenza is an extremely deadly and very virulent infection and that all preventative measures, including the vaccine, need to be considered.
“We need to respect it and we need to do everything we can to ensure we don’t have an outbreak like last year or worse still,” he noted.