‘Free flu jab could save us millions’
Australia’s peak medical body representing doctors has called for influenza injections now costing $10 to be offered free to all Australians as the number of epidemic victims grows.
Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president Bastian Seidel said a $250 million government-subsidised flu vaccination program would cost far less than the economic losses from 3000 deaths a year, mounting hospital and health bills, and lost work productivity.
Dr Seidel commended Victoria’s move on Saturday to enlist private hospitals to help the public system fight the epidemic, the first government to do so.
Two months of emergency departments in Victoria’s big public hospitals being inundated, a lack of acute care beds, patients stuck in corridors on trolleys, more than 300 flu deaths and worsening ambulance delays pushed state Health Minister Jill Hennessy to take action by adding private hospital bed capacity.
But Dr Seidel says the need could have been circumvented.
“Every year we have the same story; a new flu outbreak, the public hospitals and ambulances so stretched they can’t cope any more and, on average, 3000 deaths every year from influenza, 18,000 hospital admissions and 350,000 Australians affected by the flu,” Dr Seidel said. “Getting influenza public patients into private hospitals will cost governments millions; it would be much cheaper for Victoria to pay for preventative free vaccinations for everyone than pay for private hospital beds.”
From Saturday, three private hospitals — Cabrini in Malvern in Melbourne’s inner eastern suburbs, and the Epworth and St John of God hospitals in regional Geelong — were being paid by the government to accept Medicare-only patients arriving by ambulance when nearby public hospitals were full. More private hospitals are expected to be called in to assist.
Ambulance Victoria’s executive director of emergency operations, Mick Stephenson, thinks the step will help save lives and other states should follow suit — especially Tasmania where cities such as Launceston and Hobart, with a single public hospital each, have battled full wards and patients having to wait on trolleys.
“The (Victorian public health system) has been under significant stress and pressure this year, more so than normal, with the flu epidemic twice as big as ever before, and now an outbreak of gastro,” he said yesterday.
Ms Hennessy said the move to open select private hospitals to public patients was necessary because the severe flu epidemic was not over. She encouraged more people to have a flu shot.
Victoria has had 13,000 confirmed flu cases, with many more notifications expected, compared to 7365 this time last year.
Geelong Hospital’s head of infectious diseases, professor Eugene Athan, said his hospital had seen double the number of cases and many more patients requiring intensive care and life support due to complications.
Demand for hospital beds had been more than 100 per cent for the past two months at Geelong’s only major public hospital, with between 10-20 per cent of patients admitted for flu-related treatment and some requiring a two or three-week hospital stay.