‘Free flu jab could save us mil­lions’

The Australian - - THE NATION - SUE NEALES

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.

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