–‘Worst ever’ flu epidemic claims more lives amid calls for mandatory jabs for aged care workers

September 2, 2017

The death toll from Australia’s influenza epidemic has risen as doctors urge members of the public to get vaccinated against the deadly strain.

On Saturday the deaths of six residents at a Tasmanian nursing home were confirmed in what has become the worst flu season on record.

On Friday Victorian authorities said seven people aged between 70 and 94 had died after a flu outbreak at a nursing home in the state’s north-east.

A further 100 people were left ill following the outbreak at Wangaratta’s St John’s Retirement Village over the past two weeks.

Tasmania’s Uniting AgeWell said on Saturday it had lost six residents to an Influenza A outbreak at the Strathdevon aged care facility at Latrobe between August 9 and 16.

Despite 95 per cent of residents receiving this year’s vaccination, 31 contracted the the virus.

The growing death toll has prompted increasing calls for mandatory flu shots for aged care workers.

A growing percentage of the population going without a flu shot this year  and a particularly virulent strain of the illness has caused the number of cases in Victoria to swell to 11,845, more than double this time last year, the Australian Medical Association says. Around 105,000 cases have been diagnosed nationally, the largest number ever recorded in one season.

The AMA’s Victorian president Dr Lorraine Baker said it was not too late in the season to get the vaccine.

“There is an under-vaccinated population,” Dr Baker said. “This is a very virulent strain of Influenza A.”

In Victoria, annual immunisation against the flu is free for people deemed at risk, such as pregnant women and those aged 65 and over.

“[If] people are willing to pay for private vaccination … then we can increase the herd immunity in the community,” Dr Baker said. “But we are not getting the same level of herd immunity out there.”

Dr Baker said the Influenza A strain was included in the current immunisation program which started in April this year. 

“Immunisation provides some protection, but even immunised people have suffered this infection, usually at a much less severe rate,” she said.

“There are large parts of the community who have been affected by it who are unimmunised.” 

Dr Baker said the elderly were at particular risk of developing complications from the flu.

“This particular strain seems to be affecting, in the fatal sense, an older population.”

Dr Baker said people in nursing home care were generally more vulnerable.

“If this particular virus takes, as it can do, the lungs, kidney function, liver function; it’s a whole body infection, then those people [who are] compromised of those systems are more likely to die.”

Advocacy group the Immunisation Coalition has called for mandatory vaccination for all staff in aged care.

Dr Baker said it would be difficult to enforce compulsory flu shots for nursing home staff, but stressed it was important that 95 per cent of the population was vaccinated against the flu.

“Also [I] ask people to be responsible citizens and if they feel unwell on any given day, especially with a fever, sore throat and a runny nose, to stay home. … and protect your community … from potential infection “

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