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Low rates of flu vaccination in babies and children are expected to lift this year thanks to a landmark decision prompted by years of collaborative research between the Wesfarmers Centre of Vaccines and Infectious Diseases and colleagues around Australia.

For the first time this year, all Australian babies and children aged six months to four years will be entitled to have a free influenza vaccination.

In a landmark decision applauded by vaccine experts around the country, the vaccination was added to the Australian Government’s National Immunisation Program (NIP), effective from 2020. The life-saving public health measure follows years of collaborative research dedicated to demonstrating the importance of the vaccine for young children.

Associate Professor Chris Blyth, Co-Director of the Wesfarmers Centre of Vaccines and Infectious Diseases, based at Telethon Kids Institute, was part of a national immunisation research group which led efforts to thoroughly investigate the vaccine’s safety in young children.

Associate Professor Blyth said parents had previously been oblivious to the true danger of the flu, resulting in only 25 per cent of children being vaccinated each year.

“The majority of people saw the influenza vaccine as an optional extra, and of little importance in comparison to the routine childhood vaccines listed on the NIP,” he said.

“In reality, influenza kills more kids than meningococcal and whooping cough, and its severe complications leave a large number of children fighting for their lives in intensive care each winter.”

Associate Professor Blyth and his team worked with researchers from around Australia to share data looking at rates of infections, hospital admissions and the severity of complications, to determine which age groups were most at risk.

“There was also a big focus on vaccine surveillance, carefully monitoring any adverse reactions to ensure the flu vaccines were safe for all children, as well as investigating the healthcare costs associated with treating influenza,” he said.

The results were used in a pitch to government policymakers, successfully demonstrating the major benefits of providing the flu vaccine to all Australian babies and young children in the highest risk age group, and recommending its inclusion on the NIP.

The Government’s decision to do just that is expected to double the number of Australian children vaccinated against influenza to one million, and reduce the number of children hospitalised due to influenza by more than 50 per cent.

“This decision will have a significant impact on keeping our kids and their family members out of hospital and I sincerely thank all parties involved for their contribution in making this happen,” Associate Professor Blyth said.

There is no denying how important vaccinations are, but what happens if they are a few weeks or months late?

This has been a key focus for infectious disease epidemiologists at the Institute, who used pregnancy, birth and vaccination records from 1.9 million children to investigate how many babies received their 2, 4 and 6 month vaccinations as per the age recommendations on the National Immunisation Program.

Researchers found that as many as a quarter of Australian babies weren’t getting vaccinated on time, leaving them at risk of developing life-threatening illnesses when they are most vulnerable.

“Many babies are having their 6-month vaccinations late, allowing a dangerous window of time where they do not have maximum protection from vaccine-preventable diseases,” Dr Hannah Moore said.

Research around the importance of vaccinating your children on time has now been used in a major TV and online campaign by the Australian Government’s Department of Health.     

“Parents need to know that their children aren’t fully protected until they have all of their recommended vaccinations at the correct time, so it’s great to see this vital information being translated into a highly visible public health campaign,” Dr Moore said.

The journey to a free flu vaccine for all Australian kids