Australia’s chief medical officer halted seasonal flu vaccinations for children under five, due to a high number of children in Western Australia experiencing fever and convulsions after the shot. This will give the country time to ascertain whether the problem is due to “bad batches” or whether the makeup of the immunization itself is the problem. The swine flu vaccine will continue to be used; it is the seasonal vaccine that appears to cause the problem. New Zealand has followed suit and stopped vaccinations in the under-5 age group.
Kudos to Australia’s public health system and chief medical officer for a perfect response:
- acknowledging the problem,
- halting vaccinations pending results of its investigation,
- enhancing surveillance for adverse events (even asking parents to report adverse events),
- consulting with colleagues internationally, and
- conducting its own investigation.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation has filled in more details, noting that severe reactions are occurring in other states, and in older children.
An healthy two year old girl died in Queensland 12 hours after receiving her seasonal flu vaccine, on April 9.
Professor Collignon says health authorities need to better weigh up whether rolling out a vaccination to millions of people around the country will cause more harm than good.
“If you’re in a risk group everybody agrees you need to be vaccinated,” he said. “But the majority of the population don’t have risk factors, including children, and before we roll out a vaccine to millions of people, in my view, we need to do studies of thousands of people over a period of time to make sure we are always going to do more good than harm with the vaccine.”
Professor Collignon says about 20 per cent of Australian children who received the swine flu vaccine had moderate to severe side effects in the form of a fever of more than 38.5 degrees Celsius and severe muscle aches and pains.
But he says last winter, the risk of someone under the age of 40 getting swine flu and dying from it was less than one in a million.
“You have to start weighing this up because you may actually produce as much influenza-like illness with a vaccine as you prevent with people not getting influenza,” he said… [When I had a private practice, it was my impression that about 20% of elderly flu vaccine recipients told me that they developed a flu-like illness shortly after receiving the vaccine–Nass]
Professor Collignon says an effective surveillance system should monitor thousands of people for one or two weeks after vaccination before rolling out the vaccine to the entire population… [This is absolutely what is needed for all vaccines. But surveillance should be carried out over longer periods as well, since a different set of adverse reactions may occur later.–Nass]
UPDATE April 26: Vaccinating small children against influenza is a new idea, and in the US was based on the (unproven) theory that vaccinating children will prevent their grandparents from getting flu. The 2009-10 swine flu epidemic was the first to provide policymakers with a better rationale for vaccinating children: to protect children. However, even for swine flu, the number of deaths in otherwise healthy children was quite small. (To estimate total US child deaths, CDC quadrupled the number of known child deaths. This strategy assumed that public health officials missed counting 75% of children who died. However, virtually all child deaths occur in hospitals and were therefore counted, making the CDC strategy specious.)