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Australian Medical Association President Professor Steve Robson is urging the Australian community to get up-to-date with their influenza and Covid vaccinations. Picture: Supplied.

‘Triple threat’: Virus alert as winter looms

Healthcare experts have flagged the aged care sector at severe risk this winter as flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cases spike over February and March.

Cases of influenza and RSV have grown across northern hemisphere nations since the start of 2023, raising concern among the medical communities.

RSV is considered a highly contagious virus that is the leading cause of acute respiratory infections worldwide.

While RSV mostly affects younger children, people with a lowered immune system and older people are also at greater risk of becoming severely ill after infection.

NSW reported a 62 per cent increase in RSV cases from mid-February to early March.

While the rolling 7-day average of Australia's Covid-19 cases has plateaued at around 3,000, experts anticipated the start of winter could reignite a surge in cases.

There are currently 931 Covid cases in 156 active outbreaks in Australian aged care homes.

Australian National University infectious disease expert, Dr Nick Coatsworth, said that access to healthcare services could become a major concern.

"There is a triple threat this year, and the urgency for early protection is real," Dr Coatsworth said.

"As GPs and hospitals across the country stretch their capacity to record levels, the demand will only worsen if we all get sick.

"Many will still rely on their GPs to get vaccinated, but this may become problematic with already overstretched GP clinics and extended waiting times."

Australian Medical Association (AMA) president, Professor Steve Robson, said that while Covid measures might have eased, the virus still posed a real threat to aged care.

"We've seen that the Covid virus is very capable of mutating – it's inevitable there will be further variants and new waves," Professor Robson said.

"With winter just around the corner, we really want to encourage [older] people to get their booster shot if they are eligible.

"Clearly, there is no room for complacency."

It's estimated that 96.2 per cent of Australians over 16 have had their second Covid vaccination.

Just over 85 per cent of eligible people in aged care homes have received a fourth dose.

Professor Robson emphasised that boosters lower the chance of getting Covid and reduce the chance of becoming very sick when infected.

"The new boosters will cover the original Covid and the newer Omicron strains," he said.

Earlier this month, the health department announced that the latest Covid vaccine that covers the Omicron variants BA.4 and BA.5 would be available in April.

The BA.4 and BA.5 variants, coupled with low influenza immunity, have been associated with increased hospitalisations and increased transmissibility.

"We encourage people to talk to their aged care provider or GP about their options, what vaccines are available and which vaccine might be the best one for them," Professor Robson said.

TerryWhite Chemmart Chief Pharmacist Brenton Hart said that while people might be experiencing vaccine fatigue, many unknowingly carry the influenza virus.

"People can unknowingly have the flu and gravely affect our most vulnerable," Hart said.

"The more we suppress influenza through vaccination, the less opportunity the virus has to mutate and infect people."

A 2018 study showed that flu vaccination among adults reduced the risk of being admitted to an intensive care unit with flu by 59 per cent.

A 2012 study published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases found flu vaccination reduced children's risk of flu-related paediatric intensive care unit admission by 74 per cent.

Just over one-third of the Australian population has been vaccinated against influenza, according to federal data.

Hart is urging Australians to get vaccinated as soon as possible in the lead-up to winter, especially for flu and Covid injections.

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