Slow adoption of free flu vaccine leads to new campaign

A campaign to encourage South Australians to get free flu shots began after pharmacists reported “steady but not overwhelming” demand in the first two weeks of a state government subsidized scheme.

Health Minister Chris Picton said InDaily that the government launched an advertising campaign to encourage Southern Australians – particularly those under 65 – to receive a free flu shot at a clinic or pharmacy.

The free vaccination schedule, announced in late May and running through June 30, was prompted by concerns that this year’s flu season would be more severe after two years of a COVID-19 pandemic and reduced natural immunity.

The latest figures released on Monday show that 2,645 South Australians have caught the flu so far this season, with 238 of them admitted to hospital.

However, accurate data from last Friday shows that only 36% of eligible South Australians are vaccinated.

Prior to the launch of the free flu vaccination scheme, the SA branch of the Pharmacy Guild warned that pharmacists would be run over, saying they received no reasonable notice from the government and had limited stock.

But Pharmacy Guild SA president Nick Panayiaris said InDaily that during the first two weeks of the scheme, demand had been “constant but not overwhelming”.

“We thought there could be a pretty significant run, it being obviously a free program, but overall it’s actually going well,” he said.

“We didn’t run out of stock like we thought we might have and demand hasn’t been as high as anticipated at this stage.”

Panayiaris said the “main reason” for the slower-than-expected start was a lack of community awareness of the scheme, with some members of the public booking vaccination appointments without realizing it was free.

He said that aside from the initial rollout, there hasn’t been much government promotion to encourage people to get vaccinated.

“Some pharmacies have done their own marketing and awareness of the program and are probably getting a little more through their own channels like social media and so on,” he said.

“If they (the government) want to increase vaccination rates, they clearly need to use some form of media… and raise awareness primarily in terms of the program itself.

“If that changes in the next few weeks, I imagine we could see an increase in demand before the end of the month.

“I think a lot will depend on SA Health messages.”

Picton said the government had taken advice from pharmacists and doctors that launching a campaign at the beginning of the scheme would overtake pharmacies, but now that demand was “stable”, it was appropriate to promote it more strongly.

SA Health launched a campaign this week costing $80,000, which predominantly targets people through social media.

One of the ads the government will release as part of its campaign to encourage people to get vaccinated. Image: Provided

“There are still people who are not aware of the program and we want to make sure everyone is aware of that,” Picton said.

“Increasingly, with all these shows, the longer they last, the more you try to reach the hard-to-reach demographic.

“For example, we know… that three-quarters of people over 65 have had the flu shot, but now we’re targeting people under 65, where a third or less of people have reported.”

The Minister of Health said that “there is still a good amount of time for people to present themselves before the age of 30”.º June to use this program”.

He said the government does not have a specific target in mind for how many people it intends to reach.

“We’ve never run a program like this before; we never had a free flu shot program for all southern Australians to come forward,” he said.

“We don’t know what the take-up will be, but we hope it’s as many people as possible, because ultimately that will help keep the pressure off the healthcare system.”

Panayiaris said the federal government’s decision to release some of its flu vaccine stockpiles back to the private market alleviated earlier concerns that stockpiles could run out.

He said making sure people book vaccines in advance also means pharmacies can meet demand.

“Pharmaceuticals only open reservations based on what they can do, which means that if they don’t have extra capacity, they can’t add much more,” he said.

“Basically, it allowed pharmacies to manage their inventories more properly, and in the meantime, there was an easing of national drug stockpiles bringing more vaccines back to the private market, which obviously helped alleviate this stock shortage.

“There is no immediate sign at the moment that we are going to run out of vaccine.”

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