3 May 2017

Study finds fear foils flu-prevention efforts

Misguided beliefs about the safety of influenza vaccination are undermining public health efforts to prevent influenza-related illness and deaths in Western Australian children.

A study, led by Princess Margaret Hospital infectious diseases specialist Christopher Blyth has found that a sharp decline in child influenza vaccination rates since 2010 is attributable to ongoing parental fears sparked by a spate of adverse events following influenza vaccination that year.

Dr Blyth’s study revealed that influenza vaccination had fallen to just 7 per cent in 2010-2014 from an estimated 42 per cent in 2008-2009.

Although the vaccine at the centre of the adverse events of 2010 was no longer offered to children in Western Australia, Dr Blyth said parents continued to fear the safety of the influenza vaccine more than they feared influenza infection itself.

Dr Blyth said parental attitudes were the key to child influenza vaccination coverage and that this change in attitudes was not reflective of a general shift in attitudes to vaccination – over the same period of time, vaccine coverage had continued to increase in young children.

Dr Blyth’s investigations also revealed that post 2010, not only were fewer parents seeking the opinion of vaccine providers but GPs were also less likely to recommend influenza vaccination to parents seeking their advice.

“This is concerning because research tells us that children are three times more likely to receive the influenza vaccine if it comes recommended by their health care provider,” he said.

Dr Blyth said it was important to understand the reasons for the decline in influenza vaccination rates because influenza was a serious illness that had the potential to cause acute respiratory disease, hospitalisation and in some cases even death, particularly among young children and children with underlying medical conditions including chronic respiratory and neurological conditions and cancer.

“In WA, hundreds of children are admitted to hospital with influenza each year. At specialist children’s hospitals such as Princess Margaret Hospital, up to 10 per cent of these are admitted to the intensive care unit,” he said.

Dr Blyth’s research, which was undertaken with the support of a Department of Health/Raine Medical Research Fellowship, also dispels an assumption that he says is commonly voiced by GPs – that the influenza vaccine is not as effective in young children and children with co-morbidities, as it is in older children and adults.

“The results of this study show that this belief is unfounded and that the benefits are in fact very similar to those in the rest of the population,” he said.

Dr Blyth said influenza vaccination was extremely important for all children but especially for the very young and for children with risk factors for severe disease.

“This study highlights how misguided beliefs about its safety and efficacy are limiting a very important public health measure that has enormous potential to prevent illness and save lives,” he said.

Dr Blyth said the results of this project had been used to improve the information given to parents, GPs and other vaccine providers about the safety and efficacy of influenza vaccination.

Chief Medical Officer, Professor Gary Geelhoed, said Dr Blyth’s research was an excellent example of local research that would influence a major area of public health with significant health benefits for the community.