Winter is coming: Experts urge over-60s to get flu shot early this year

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The flu is especially serious for people more than 65 years old. Source: Getty

Autumn may have just started, but experts are already urging over-60s to start planning for their annual flu jab.

After 2017’s devastating flu season, which claimed the lives of more than 1,200 people, the government and medical experts are ramping up their campaign to get Australians immunised before the next season sets in.

Because our immune system weakens as we age, over-65s are at particular risk when it comes to influenza and are the most likely to die from complications caused by the virus. Initial symptoms of the flu include fever, muscle aches and cough, but these can quickly develop into something more serious, such as pneumonia.

Dr Rod Pearce, GP and member of the Immunisation Coalition, told Starts at 60 the ideal time for over-60s to start thinking about their seasonal flu vaccine is in late April – almost six weeks before winter officially begins.

However, Pearce has warned the public not to vaccinate themselves too soon, noting that doing so may not protect them when the outbreak is at its worst later in the year.

“We traditionally say do it as soon as possible, [however] recent evidence shows that after four months the immune response drops,” he explains. “This doesn’t mean you’re not protected after four months, but if you had the vaccine too early then you may run a risk if there’s a very late flu season.”

While questions have been raised about whether you should get a second vaccine after four months, Pearce says it depends on the flu season, the strain and the patient’s health.

“The important thing to remember is just because your immune response is declining at four months doesn’t mean you’re not protected,” he said. “So for the first four months you’re getting the best response though it doesn’t mean if it declines a little bit that you’re still not protected. It depends on the flu season, the strain and your own health – that would determine whether you should make a decision [to get a second jab).

This year there is a new A strain (H3N2) and a new strain for the B Victoria linage, as well as four other strains of the A and B virus circulating. The government has once again made the flu vaccine free for those over the age of 65, but there are other vaccines also specifically targeted to over-65s that are available privately at a small cost. 

Sanofi high dose Fluzone is one of those vaccines. It was available on the National Immunisation Program (NIP) in 2018, as was Fluad – an enhanced trivalent vaccine that is still available on the NIP this year, while Fluzone is not. The government decided against putting Fluzone on the NIP because of the higher price of the vaccine. Both vaccines will help protect over-65s against the flu, but according to Sanofi, high dose Fluzone is the only vaccine that’s been shown to reduce hospitalisations when compared to standard-dose vaccines commonly used for those under the age of 65.

“There’s extensive clinical data showing the high-dose [vaccine] has significant benefits over standard doses, which is the traditional vaccine that has been used for years,” Christian Felter, Medical Director at Sanofi Pasteur says.

“Now the goal of the enhanced vaccine is to create a [better] immune response in older adults, what I mean by that is, better protection. Now the high-dose increases the dose of the vaccine. It contains four times the amount of active ingredients, which is called an antigen, compared to normal vaccines. Can I tell you one is better than the other? No I can’t, but the high-dose vaccine has been proven to increase benefits.”

A Department of Health spokesperson told Starts at 60 both vaccines are effective and that the enhanced trivalent vaccine listed on the NIP has been made available on expert advice. 

“Consistent with international immunisation experts providing advice to governments in comparable countries, local experts have concluded there is insufficient evidence at this time to preferentially recommend either of the advanced vaccines currently available in the Australian market, Sanofi’s Fluzone High Dose and Seqirus’ Fluad,” the spokesperson said.

“This position is based on currently available evidence which does not conclusively demonstrate superiority of one vaccine over the other.”

Ask your GP about which vaccine would be best for you.

Correction: Sanofi was incorrectly referred to on one occasion as Sanofil in an earlier version of this story. The story has subsequently been updated to correctly refer to the company as Sanofi.

When do you usually get your flu vaccine for winter? Did you avoid the flu last year?

Important information: The information provided on this website is of a general nature and information purposes only. It does not take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. It is not personalised health advice and must not be relied upon as such. Before making any decisions about your health or changes to medication, diet and exercise routines you should determine whether the information is appropriate in terms of your particular circumstances and seek advice from a medical professional.

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