Australia is entering the flu season again but sadly it’s serious problems with the vaccine rather than the disease that is hitting the headlines.
After a spike in adverse reactions to the seasonal influenza vaccine in Western Australian children, the free flu immunisation program for has been halted in that state. A short time later, Australia’s chief medical officer Jim Bishop, has advised all children in the country under 5 y.o. to not get a seasonal flu shot until further notice.
Adverse reactions to the seasonal flu vaccination are not uncommon, though many go unreported. Patients are frequently told that it’s not unusual to experience flu-like symptoms after immunisation and anecdotally the majority of mild-moderate adverse reactions are not passed on to the Therapeutic Goods Administration. Last year 1289 suspected cases of side effects were reported in response to the 2009 Southern Hemisphere jab. These included nausea and other gastrointestinal problems, fever, headache and fatigue. There were also some severe reactions including 8 cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome (a serious neurological condition that can cause permanent disability) and a further 8 anaphylactic reactions, requiring life saving adrenaline injections. The TGA considers these later two side effects not out of the ordinary statistically.
1289 reported adverse reactions, from approximately 6 million doses of the influenza vaccine, are not many. However keep in mind adverse reactions to vaccines generally are under-reported and in some cases discounted. The Guillain–Barré Syndrome reaction occurs in about one in a million cases. Our last influenza vaccine season produced two more cases than predicted.
But back to the children. It seemed strange to read today that only Western Australia had any reports of adverse reaction in pre-school aged children. I first wondered if other states had received different batches of the junior influenza vaccine. But it has been reported that WA is the first state to be involved in a pilot program offering free influenza shots to all children under the age of 5. This immunization is available in other states but parents must pay for it if they want it. Adding the influenza vaccine to the immunization schedule would result in a much higher uptake. I cannot obtain any figures as yet of the doses administered this year in different Australian states.
There is no denying that immunizations can save lives. Though the influenza vaccine in particular has been vexed with a bad case of misleading statistics and doubts about efficacy. Accurate statistics and full disclosure of possible side effects, however uncommon, would lead to more informed consent.
Also on the subject
The fascinating story of the medical researcher who dared to question the efficacy of the seasonal flu vaccine, the pressure from her profession to ignore the issue and her eventual proof that the vaccine is less effective than commonly reported.
In the current edition of Australian Prescribing leading physician and academic, Peter Collignon, questions the safety of the new swine flu vaccine