Australia’s worst May on record for influenza cases has local doctors pleading for all Victorians aged six months and over to utilise the free flu vaccine scheme before it ends on June 30.

The flu season is only just beginning, yet health experts are concerned following the highest number of influenza infections in May on record, with more than 80,000 cases reported to the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System (NNDSS).

Despite the state government’s incentive to boost vaccination coverage to help avoid more hospitalisations throughout winter by offering free flu shots between June 1 and June 30, doctors and staff at the Clocktower Medical Centre are concerned by the lack of local uptake.

“To date, the uptake of patients accessing this scheme has been fairly poor; this is very concerning to the doctors of our practice,” the Clocktower Medical Centre doctors stated.

Since mid-April, the weekly number of confirmed influenza cases across the nation has exceeded the five-year average, and Gippsland is no exception to the upsurge in cases.

Dr Yi Yun Jiang, Dr Rakesh Nandha, Dr Gaurav Pathania, Dr Thomas Walsh and Dr William Truong from the Clocktower Medical Centre strongly encourage the public to be vaccinated with the free 2022 influenza vaccine as local cases skyrocket.

“Local influenza cases have exceeded the past years, and we are seeing many, very sick patients of all ages,” the Clocktower Tower Medical Centre doctors warned.

Similarly, Inglis Medical Centre is experiencing a high volume of sick patients presenting with flu-like symptoms, with minimal bookings to receive the flu vaccine.

“We are experiencing the same as the other clinics,” Inglis Medical Centre practice manager Brenda Beattie said.

“We could fit patients in today (June 15) for flu shots, so we are certainly not fully booked, and there is no wait.

“Our respiratory clinic is also fully booked every day with symptomatic patients,” Ms Beattie added.

Staff at Ramahyuck Gippsland Family Practice also share these concerns, stating that despite the government’s free flu shot incentive, only a small number of patients have scheduled flu shots this year and are also seeing an increase in patients with flu-like symptoms.

Dr Emma Beaton of Heyfield Medical Centre adds that this year’s respiratory infections, influenza and COVID, are at an all-time high compared to past years.

“It is very accurate to say that respiratory presentations are rife,” Dr Beaton said.

“The flu is absolutely far more prevalent in our community than in previous years.

“At the moment, we have one doctor every day, dedicating an entire morning for respiratory contacts, conducting phone consults for people who are really sick with respiratory illnesses. That is four hours each day dedicated to the flu or COVID.”

With the flu and COVID running rampant throughout the community, Dr Beaton and the entire Heyfield Medical Centre are repetitiously urging people to get the flu shot, report their symptoms, and if sick, wear a mask and isolate.

Photo: Zoe Askew.

The Department of Health reports that 98 per cent of all flu cases are Influenza A with the subtype H3N2, and according to the Immunisation Coalition, “Infections caused by A (H3N2) strains are more likely to lead to severe morbidity and increased mortality than influenza B or seasonal A strains.”

With the healthcare system still under strain from the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased severity of the current influenza strain rapidly spreading throughout the country, healthcare experts are pleading for the public to get their flu jab as soon as possible.

Doctors at the Clocktower Medical Centre strongly encourage patients of all ages to get vaccinated, reminding the community that flu vaccinations are free to all Victorians until June 30.

“The vaccination will not cost you anything; the visit will be bulk billed, and the vaccine provided to every Victorian free of charge,” the Clocktower Medical Centre doctors said.

“Importantly, patients need to understand that even if they have been infected with influenza, it does not build them immunity to all strains.

“Patients may be infected in the same season by a different strain of flu, especially if they are unvaccinated.

“Therefore, flu vaccinations are highly recom­mended and valuable, even after infection.”

In the year to date, data from the Department of Health reports there has been 733 hospital admissions due to influenza across sentinel hospital sites, of which 6.1 per cent were admitted directly to ICU.

In addition, the NNDSS has received reports of 27 influenza-associated deaths.

A spokesperson from the Department of Health said that “8.7 million Australians have had their influenza vaccination reported to the Australian Immunisation Register” in the year to date. That is a little over 30 per cent of the population.

Clocktower Medical Centre doctors warn the most vulnerable groups are pregnant women, children younger than five years (especially those under age two), adults 50 years and over and Indigenous Australians.

Photo Zoe Askew

Additional high-risk groups include anyone with health conditions including diabetes, lung disease, asthma, heart disease, sickle cell anaemia, kidney or liver disease, metabolic disorders, weakened immune systems, and immunocompromised patients.

As influenza-like-illness activity across Australia has escalated since March 2022, people aged 5–19 years, adults aged 20–24 years, and children younger than five years have returned the highest influenza infection rate, according to the NNDSS.

As a result, the Department of Health has classified anyone aged between 0 and 24 years as an at-risk population.

Health experts, including doctors at the Clocktower Medical Centre, warn that the 2022 influenza vaccination is critical for patients who are considered high-risk.

“Those in close contact with people at risk of complications, like health care workers and people who care for infants too young to be vaccinated, also need the vaccine,” Clocktower Medical Centre doctors said.

Australia is managing COVID-19 and an influenza season for the first time.

The country’s acting chief medical officer Dr Sonya Bennett, reiterated the increasing importance for the public to protect themselves from COVID-19 and influenza.

“Over the past two years, influenza cases were very low in Australia because of limitations on international travel and a range of other measures such as social distancing and mask-wearing, but with restrictions now eased, influenza cases are rising,” Dr Bennett said.

“Whilst this rapid rise in cases appears to be occurring earlier than an average influenza season, the timing of the peak and size of the influenza season is difficult to predict.

“I encourage everyone to continue to practice all the prevention measures we have become used to, including covering coughs and sneezes, regular hand washing, wearing a face mask when physical distancing is not possible, and staying home when unwell.”

The simple act of protecting yourself and the community by getting the 2022 influenza vaccination will help the Gippsland health care system, which is currently bracing for yet another brutal surge of patient admissions.

Two flu-vaccinated patients with two very happy healthcare professionals from the Clocktower Medical Centre. Left to right: Mitchell Scholtes, Dr Gaurav Pathania, nurse Marion Spencer and Ruby Scholtes. Photo: Zoe Askew

Central Gippsland Health chief executive officer Mark Dykgraaf said, “each winter, influenza has a direct impact on the hospital system with increased presentations to emergency departments and increased hospital admissions”.

“At a time when our hospitals are endeavouring to deal with the long waiting lists for elective surgery as a result of the COVID-19 impact, it is important to do all we can to minimise influenza-related demand on our hospitals,” Mr Dykgraaf said.

“The simplest and most effective way that people in the community can assist us is to get vaccinated against influenza as well as COVID-19.

“CGH is encouraging everyone to consider getting immunised, especially those with chronic disease or older Australians.

“Taking this important step minimises a person’s risk of getting a serious disease; it protects their family and friends, and lessens the demand on CGH services.

“It is important to remember that influenza is a serious disease and every year, hundreds of Australians die as a result. We can all do “our bit” by getting vaccinated against influenza.”

For the greater good, health and safety of the community and to relieve the pressure on the already burnt-out health care system, by keeping hospitalisations to a minimum, local doctors and health care professionals implore the public to make use of the free flu vaccinations available to all Victorians aged six months and over until June 30.