Should you get the flu shot early?

The imminent approach of the cold and flu season as COVID-19 continues its relentless march across the globe has many people concerned about whether they should get their annual flu shot earlier than usual – and whether there will be sufficient supplies given the expected high demand.

The country’s biggest health company, CSL, reports that it has ramped up supply of this year’s vaccine and the federal government says it has placed its biggest order ever.

There is no vaccine for COVID-19, or coronavirus, but there are concerns Australians could contract coronavirus and flu at the same time.

The flu vaccine is already being distributed to pharmacies across Australia – a month before the usual start of the government’s free National Immunisation Program – but Robert Booy, a professor at Sydney Medical School, said only healthy adults who were in regular contact with at-risk groups should consider getting their vaccine early.

“I would strongly suggest people who are healthy but have contact with very young children, the elderly, or people who are unwell, get vaccinated,” Professor Booy said.

“It takes pressure off the system … if lots of well people, who respond better to vaccines, can get themselves vaccinated in March or early April.”

But most people should hold off getting the vaccine until the recommended time of mid-April on, said Richard Kidd, chair of the Australian Medical Association’s Council of General Practice.

“If people choose to get [vaccinated early], they need to make sure they get a booster shot three or fourth months later,” Dr Kidd said. “The last thing you want is their immunity dropping just before the peak.”

Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy has already moved to allay fears of a shortage of the flu vaccine.

“We have more than enough,” he said. “In the National Immunisation Program we have … got coverage and we are advised that the private market is also well supplied.

“I don’t think there will be a problem with flu vaccines this year.”

The National Immunisation Program offers free vaccinations to several at-risk groups, including those aged 65 and over and people with medical conditions that put them at higher risk of flu complications, such as those with diabetes, severe asthma, lung or heart disease.

NSW health minister Brad Hazzard said that although the flu vaccine would not combat COVID-19, it helps to reduce the severity and spread of the flu, which lowers immunity and makes people more susceptible to other illnesses.

The Department of Health recommends people get vaccinated from mid-April so they are protected when the flu season kicks off, but also several months later when flu activity peaks – typically from June to September in most parts of Australia.

Research shows the effectiveness of the flu shot starts to wane after three to four months.

Dr Holly Seale, a senior lecturer in the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at the University of NSW, said that while it was difficult to predict whether we should expect a bad flu season, some indications suggested that was likely.

The Immunisation Coalition reports that so far this year, there have been more 14,816 confirmed cases of influenza in Australia.

Prof. Booy said there was “a lot of influenza out there already”.

“It started early last year, and it peaked early last year, in July, not August as we often see,” he said.

However he added that because people were paying extra attention to personal hygiene because of COVID-19, the risk of flu might be reduced.

“If people are generally taking good precautions, washing their hands and so on, not only could coronavirus be reduced, but other infections too,” he said.

Prof. Booy also said people aged 65 and over should consider a pneumococcal vaccine to reduce their risk of secondary bacterial pneumonia.

“We know with influenza, there’s a concerning risk of secondary bacterial infection,” he said. “If you … haven’t had one dose of that vaccine – it lasts for years – you can inquire with your GP if you could have it, for added protection.”

Will you wait until mid-April for your annual flu shot? Have you ramped up your personal hygiene practices?

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Written by Janelle Ward

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