Life Wellbeing Flu shots: We are close to herd immunity for the first time
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Flu shots: We are close to herd immunity for the first time

More than twice as many people are happy to get a needle in their arm to ward off seasonal flu. Photo: Getty
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What a difference a pandemic makes. Surveys have found that more than two-thirds of adult Australians have had – or intend to have – the 2020 flu vaccination shot.

This is a radical turn-around from last year, when the numbers went the other way, and 61 per cent of adult Australians told the Immunisation Coalition they wouldn’t get vaccinated for the 2019 season.

Public messaging about COVID-19 potentially overwhelming the health system – and the need to keep flu numbers down to avoid system collapse – has worked spectacularly.

That message took hold relatively early into the pandemic.

In March, the Immunisation Coalition published a report that found 61 per cent of adults planned to get vaccinated.

This week, according to an online survey from Finder, 72 per cent of Australians said they’d been vaccinated or planned to.

Online surveys have their limitations, but if these numbers are close to the reality – and people actually follow through with these stated intentions – we will come tantalisingly close to achieving herd immunity.

The herd immunity threshold for influenza is said to be reached when 75 per cent of the population is protected against the disease.

This is very good news for the government, state and federal: implied in these figures, the national rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine would appear to have widespread support.

It may even allow the government to plan for a rollout that is voluntary, not mandatory – which could complicate community support by whipping up conspiracy theorists.

But a quarter of Australians still say no jab

Still the Finder survey of 1025 respondents revealed that more than one in four Australians (28 per cent) – equivalent to 5 million people – won’t be getting a flu vaccine this year.

Anti-vaxxers are likely to package this as proof that a significant number of Australians have recognised vaccination as an issue of individual choice. It’s a silly argument that preys on a complex situation.

If we take vaccination rates in children as a guide, because that’s when most vaccinations occur, about one in 10 Australians are vaccine hesitant. This can mean a number of things:

  1. They have anxieties about vaccine safety or efficiency that tend to be allayed when the issues are talked through with them.
  2. Unwilling to spend the money. A flu shot can from $10 to $25. Flu shorts are free for all people aged six months to younger than five years; all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged six months and older; pregnant women (during any stage of pregnancy); all people aged 65 years and older; and people aged six months and older with medical conditions that increase the risk of influenza disease complications.
  3. They don’t believe the flu shot works because they’ve caught a bad cold or some other infection soon after being jabbed. It’s largely a matter of confusion about flus and colds.
  4. COVID-19 is part of the problem. They don’t want to go anywhere near a doctor or a pharmacy out of fear of sick people. Doctors say their billings are down on average 25 per cent. This suggests fewer people are getting treated for chronic conditions and acute illness, which means they don’t see vaccination as a priority either.
  5. They don’t believe they can get the flu shot because of reported shortages. In an Australian Doctor report, the Immunisation Coalition last week complained that GPs were still having trouble getting supplies of the vaccine. Why is this so? Some clinics ordered too much, others didn’t order enough: the distribution system has to some extent been bedevilled by the havoc caused by COVID-19.

According to the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System (NNDSS), there have been more than 20,000 confirmed cases of influenza so far in 2020.

However, cases dropped significantly when social distancing measures were put in place in March.

There were 286 cases in April 2020 versus 18,690 cases in April 2019.

Last year was the biggest year on record for confirmed cases of influenza with 313,356 recorded cases.