The importance of vaccinating young children against influenza has been a key message as the ACT Government has kicked off its winter wellness strategy for 2023.
Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said winter was typically when the Territory experienced an increase in respiratory illness, including influenza, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) and COVID-19.
However, there were early warning signs that this season could bring with it more cases than usual.
She said while the data was difficult to compile, children have been known to die in Canberra from complications as a result of influenza.
“We do know [a child’s death] happened last year, and it is a really important reminder to families in Canberra and across the country that while it is rare that those complications from influenza are so serious, it can be a very serious disease in young children,” Ms Stephen-Smith said.
“The best thing you can do to protect your child from poor outcomes if they are exposed to influenza is to have them vaccinated.”
The ACT has a higher flu vaccination rate for children under five years, compared to the national average, but the government wants to see those numbers increase as we head into winter.
Children aged six months to five years can receive the flu vaccine for free at Canberra’s Early Childhood Immunisation Clinics and ACT Health Antenatal Clinics.
Under the National Immunisation Program the flu shot is also free for pregnant people, those aged 65 years and older, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people older than six months, and anyone over the age of six months with underlying medical conditions.
Doctors and pharmacists can also give the jab for free, although there could be associated administration costs.
For everyone else, you would need to pay to have a flu vaccine, but Ms Stephen-Smith said you wouldn’t just be protecting yourself.
“That helps protect you, but it also helps to protect your family and your community,” she said.
“The more people who are vaccinated, the less flu we’re likely to see being transmitted across the community.”
Even though the peak period for influenza is typically June to September, last year did see a significant early increase in the reportable disease.
In total in 2022, there were 1965 laboratory-confirmed influenza notifications in the ACT, but those numbers are probably much higher.
NSW has already declared the start of its flu season, as it also winds down PCR testing.
ACT Acting Chief Health Officer Dr Sally Singleton said while it was difficult to predict exactly when flu cases were projected to increase, they were currently collating data from the northern hemisphere’s season to give them a better understanding of what to expect.
“We’re regularly reviewing not just the COVID surveillance information but also the influenza and RSV [data], which are notifiable respiratory conditions, and making sure that we’re continuing to talk closely with our national colleagues,” she said.
“If we get any early signs [of an increase], then we’ll be making sure we’re messaging [to the community], and I know the hospital is constantly monitoring the impacts not only of inpatients, but also on their staff.”
Ms Stephen-Smith said getting both your yearly flu vaccine, checking if you’re due for a COVID-19 booster and practicing COVID smart behaviours, would help protect our health services from the predicted increase in people needing hospitalisation over the winter period.
She said ACT Health was working closely with Canberra Health Services to ensure the Territory’s hospitals were ready, including identifying surge bedding, but admitted it was proving difficult.
“All health systems across the country are facing challenges in recruiting and retaining staff, we’ve clearly seen levels of burnout in our health staff through the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ms Stephen-Smith said.
“But we’ve also been doing a lot of work to ensure that our services are safe and inclusive places to work, and continuing those efforts towards recruitment and retention.”