The flu season is looming but it may be more difficult for many people to get a flu jab this year, as low supplies and flight delays due to the Iceland volcanic eruption have limited the availability of the vaccine.
There is a ready supply of free flu vaccine for potentially vulnerable people, such as pregnant women, anyone over 65 and people with a chronic condition, but for other patients there may be delays.
The company that runs Australia’s second largest commercial vaccination program is running out of the vaccine.
Stan Macionis, the chief executive of Medibank Health Solutions, says there are a number of problems this year.
“One of the strains in the vaccine is a low-yielding strain, which [has] caused some longer manufacturing times,” he said.
“More recently, one of the major suppliers flies their vaccines from France and they have been hit by the air situation.”
Medibank Health Solutions does about 100,000 vaccinations per year and Mr Macionis says about 40,000 doses have been distributed so far.
He says the remainder of this year’s vaccination program will probably be pushed back by a few weeks.
“We’d expect that after the next week or so when the vaccine starts becoming available in significant quantities again, that we’ll be able to do all of the remaining flu campaign that we usually do,” he said.
“Certainly quite appropriate to go through to this month, next month and the month after in terms of the efficacy of having a flu vaccination.”
Brent MacGregor, managing director of one of the major suppliers, Sanofi Pasteur, agrees this is the case.
“I think it’s a bit frustrating for the private market. It is frustrating for us as well,” he said.
“However, I think it is really a case of the market being shifted out by some weeks. But I think the market will be fully supplied in advance of the peak.”
Mr MacGregor says part of the reason for the delay is that the Government’s vaccine program gets its supplies before the private market.
“We typically supply the public market, our public market commitment in advance of supplying the private market, and because the supply of vaccine into the market has generally been later than in years past, mainly due to H1N1, we haven’t completed our commitment to the public market just yet,” he said.
“Hence there is a delay in supplying the private market. I think that is probably to a degree, industry wide.
“So the doses to which the private market has been accustomed to receiving by this point in the year, it is coming a little bit later.”
The president of the Royal Australian College of GPs, Chris Mitchell, says demand for the vaccine is up this year.
“General practice has access to the flu vaccine via high risk groups, pregnant women, patients with chronic disease particularly and those over the age of 65. So for that group access is relatively simple,” he said.
Doctor Mitchell says there is an alternative for people who fall into the low-risk category and are worried about waiting for this year’s jab.
He says they can get last year’s swine flu vaccine.
“For those that aren’t in a high-risk group, the H1N1 Panvax influenza vaccine is actually a very helpful resource,” he said.
“For those people that are thinking about a flu needle this year when they maybe haven’t been thinking about it in past years, that might be a vaccine if you are in a low-risk group that you could talk with your GP about the appropriateness of its use.”
The Federal Government has priority over commercial providers. This year, it ordered 4.7 million doses of vaccine. So far, 60 per cent of the order has been delivered.
A spokeswoman for the Federal Health Department says stocks of the vaccine are adequate to service the Government’s free program.