Almost half of older Australians are missing out on free, life-saving vaccinations, according to research published in the Medical Journal of Australia.
And while 150,000 children are recorded as being partially or completely unvaccinated, as many as 3.8 million adults are not fully protected.
In an opinion piece, four experts led by Robert Menzies of the University of New South Wales say reaching unvaccinated adults and persuading them have their jabs is difficult.
“However,” they write, finding ways to do so “is likely to be more successful in preventing disease than policies that sanction vaccine-hesitant parents.”
Adults over the age of 65 are eligible for free vaccinations against influenza and pneumococcal disease. Since November 2016, those over 70 have also been eligible for a free vax against shingles, also known as herpes zoster.
Figures on the rate of take-up for the herpes jab aren’t available yet, but Menzies and colleagues report that on the latest available figures only 51% of eligible older adults have had their injections.
The rate of noncompliance brings with it considerable personal and economic costs. Each year in Australia there are roughly 300,000 reported cases of flu, which lead to 18,000 admissions and 3000 deaths.
Pneumococcal disease is responsible for around 360 cases, and claims at least 45 lives.
Across the population, vaccination rates vary wildly between communities and demographics – a picture made hazy because of patchy data.
The authors reserve special criticism for vaccination public health campaigns that target those people who are most vulnerable.
“The dilemma of these programs is that, while they target individuals at highest risk and with the most to gain from immunisation, they routinely achieve lower coverage than programs with simpler age-based recommendations,” they write.
They point to a 2015 Western Australian study that showed that despite the fact the World Health Organisation put them in the highest risk category only 41% of pregnant women received an influenza vax.
Other high risk groups had even poorer results. “For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 15 to 49 years with medical risk factors, the most recent pneumococcal coverage estimate is an unacceptable 13%,” they write.
The researchers call for a thorough overhaul of the way free vaccinations are promoted and recommended – especially by health professionals.
“There is a need for governments, the media, providers and individuals to direct more attention towards the large numbers of adults who are unnecessarily susceptible to vaccine-preventable disease each year,” they write.
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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