A general practitioner has warned that people with compromised immunity face “absolutely disastrous” outcomes if they fall ill with seasonal flu and coronavirus at the same time.
Put bluntly, “they might die”, said the past president of the Rural Doctors Association, Dr Adam Coltzau.
Young people who keep fit and healthy can also become very sick from the flu, and pass on the virus to people more vulnerable than themselves, meaning no one can afford to become complacent, he said.
Older Australians, as well as people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema, asthma and other chronic lung diseases, already have an especially high risk of death if they contract the coronavirus.
Add influenza into the mix, and the consequences for those infected could be “very devastating”, Dr Coltzau said.
The main reason to get a flu shot this year is to avoid putting an intolerable burden on hospitals.
The second is to avoid being in a situation where people end up with two very different viruses simultaneously attacking their respiratory system, said Dr Coltzau.
“You might survive COVID-19 if you get it. You might survive the flu if you get it. If you get COVID-19 and the flu together, you’re really going to be in trouble,” he said.
As part of the National Immunisation Program, Australians aged 65 and over have been offered world-first access to a new government-funded influenza vaccine called FLUAD Quad.
Older adults are the priority because their weakened immune systems make it harder for them to fight infection.
On average each year, the flu kills more than 3000 Australians and causes 13,500 people to require hospital treatment, the government’s healthdirect website says.
The elderly and children under five have the highest rates of hospitalisation in Australia, the website further states.
Medical workers want to avoid a scenario where the flu puts an added strain on Australia’s healthcare system, which is already struggling to deal with the pandemic.
As of Monday, there have been at least 19,166 influenza cases in Australia this year, according to data collected by the Immunisation Coalition.
The last thing healthcare workers want to see is people ending up in intensive care and taking up life-saving equipment because they did not get a flu shot.
Therefore, while the flu vaccine does not protect against the coronavirus, it “may help to reduce the risk of diagnostic uncertainty between flu and COVID-19 and reduce pressure on our health system and ICUs”, said Associate Professor Michael Woodward, director of aged care research at Austin Health.
The normal time to get vaccinated is around mid-April or May.
To reduce strain on the health system caused by COVID-19, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) is advising people to get the flu shot from their GP as soon as possible.
The FLUAD Quad vaccine will provide older adults with “enhanced immunogenicity”, RACGP spokesperson Ally Francis said.
“The government has said that they have secured enough of the special vaccine for over 65s for everyone in this age group in the country to get one,” Ms Francis said.
“Supply dates vary across states and regions, so it’s important that people check that their GP has the right vaccine in stock for their age group and book an appointment when it is available.”