When and where to get your 2021 flu shot

Health experts are warning against complacency over the flu shot this year, amid fears of a ‘rebound influenza season’.

Australians are being urged to book in for their annual flu shot ahead of this winter.

Vaccine and immunisation expert Professor Terry Nolan says low flu numbers last year could actually be a danger for this year, because herd protection from influenza will be lower than normal, leaving many more vulnerable.

“There’s a reasonable basis to be concerned that we’re going to have a bit of a double whammy of a flu season,” says Prof Nolan, head of the vaccine and immunisation research group at Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity.

“If we get a COVID outbreak and both are circulating at the same time, the impact on the health system could be catastrophic.

“The very best solution is to get vaccinated – the flu vaccine is readily available, free of charge to those over 65 years of age and under five and people with chronic health conditions, and cheap for everyone else – and it works. It really is a no-brainer.”

Immunisation expert Professor Robert Booy says there is also a risk people may falsely think the COVID-19 vaccine will protect them against the flu.

“Influenza and COVID-19 are both dangerous, but separate, viruses and an influenza vaccination is the best way to prevent the flu. If we let our guard down, flu can come back with a vengeance,” he says.

About the 2021 flu vaccine

The 2021 vaccine contains the influenza strains recommended for the southern hemisphere by the World Health Organisation and the Australian Influenza Committee.

The strains recommended for Australia are:

Egg-based quadrivalent influenza vaccines

  • an A/Victoria/2570/2019 (H1N1)pdm09-like virus;
  • an A/Hong Kong/2671/2019 (H3N2)-like virus;
  • a B/Washington/02/2019-like (B/Victoria lineage) virus; and
  • a B/Phuket/3073/2013-like (B/Yamagata lineage) virus.

Cell-based quadrivalent influenza vaccines

  • an A/Wisconsin/588/2019 (H1N1)pdm09-like virus;
  • an A/Hong Kong/45/2019 (H3N2)-like virus;
  • a B/Washington/02/2019 (B/Victoria lineage)-like virus; and
  • a B/Phuket/3073/2013 (B/Yamagata lineage)-like virus.

Immunisation against influenza can take two to three weeks to take effect, which is why getting vaccinated well before winter is important.

Influenza remains the most common preventable infectious disease in Australia.

While it tends to cause mild symptoms, it can also cause very serious illness in otherwise healthy people and lead to hospitalisation and even death.

Who should get a flu vaccine in 2021?

The Australian Government recommends everyone aged six months and over be immunised.

Those working in aged care homes or long-term care facilities, healthcare workers, early childhood educators and those who live or work with someone at high risk of serious illness from the flu, are also urged to immunise.

People who get vaccinated are at lower risk of getting a flu infection (and developing serious disease) than those who don’t.

The national immunisation program provides free flu shots to eligible people including those over 65 and under five; pregnant women, people with medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, severe asthma and kidney disease; and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders from six months of age.

Why you need a flu shot every year

The flu virus is constantly evolving to beat our immune system, so the vaccine is designed around four specific strains each year, based on global data showing viruses that dominant the previous winter.

Immunity offered by the vaccine wears off after some time, which is why annual shots are recommended in autumn.

This provides peak protection in time for winter, says the Department of Health.

However, it’s never too late to vaccinate, as influenza can circulate all year round.

Where to get your flu vaccine

People over 65 years of age are advised to see their GP to organise the stronger over-65 vaccine under the national immunisation program.

Current guidelines stipulate a 14-day gap between a flu shot and a COVID-19 vaccination and GPs can help patients understand which one they should get first, says the Australian Medical Association.

Chemist Warehouse is also again offering flu vaccinations at in-store clinics this year for $14.99, in a process that is convenient, quick and affordable.

“As the House of Wellness we’re committed to providing easily accessible and affordable flu immunisations to all Australians, while educating consumers on the importance of the vaccination, as it takes a community to provide immunity,” says Mario Tascone, pharmacist and director of Chemist Warehouse Retail.

Healthy habits to help protect against the flu

While it’s important to get your flu shot, there is also lots you can do to stop the spread of germs.

  • Wash your hands thoroughly and often (and the right way).
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cough or sneeze into your elbow to stop droplets travelling (and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth).
  • Bin your tissues.
  • Avoid sharing cups, plates, cutlery and towels.
  • Keep surfaces clean.

Written by Liz McGrath.