Winter 2017 saw one of the worst flu outbreaks in many years. There were a record number of deaths, affecting everyone young and old – the youngest flu victim was a primary school child.

And though most years find that a number of aged care residents will die during flu season – this year those numbers were alarmingly high.

In Victoria alone, it was reported that 121 aged care residents in Victoria had died from the flu. In comparison, last year there were 36 fatal Victorian cases.

Most of the deaths were attributed to H3N2, a fast-mutating strain of the flu that is defying vaccines and medical experts’ efforts to stop it.

The Government earlier this week released detailed reviews of aged care homes in Victoria and Tasmania that had the highest death toll – and it was revealed poor facility management and low staff vaccination rates.

Federal Aged Care Minister Ken Wyatt ordered the review by the Australian Aged Care Quality Agency of the St Johns facilities in Wangaratta, that had 10 flu related deaths, and the Strathdevon facility in Latrobe, who had 6 deaths during the influenza outbreak in August and September.

“These review audits reveal management errors, especially in infection control at the two sites,” Minister Wyatt said.

“The flu season affected aged care residents and staff and the homes’ infection control and contingency plans were overwhelmed but it was unacceptable.”

“Staff vaccination rates in both homes were low, with only around one-third vaccinated ahead of the outbreaks, and dozens of staff were subsequently struck down with the flu.”

In response, Health Minister Greg Hunt has moved to make it mandatory for aged care facilities to implement flu vaccination programs for staff, with Chief Medical Officer Dr Brendan Murphy currently examining all options to increase vaccination rates.

These reviews have found that at both facilities, the management did not provide enough additional support and the professional guidance that was needed to cope with the outbreak – and potential prevent flu related deaths..

Minister Wyatt has said that the Quality Agency have now increased their focus on the issue of infection control at all aged care facilities.

“The Agency is reviewing infection control practices, including a mandatory survey of all facilities’ outbreak management and staff vaccination rates, which is due for completion next week,” said Minister Wyatt.

“Results will be collated, then the Agency will focus on and engage with all homes which have registered low vaccination rates or difficulties managing the 2017 flu season.”

The Quality Agency is also running staff seminars in every aged care jurisdiction at present, to strengthen quality monitoring around infection control and increase staff and resident vaccinations.

Targeted aged care communication and education materials will be developed for the 2018 influenza season to further promote staff influenza vaccination.

This goes beyond just the affected Victoria and Tasmania facilities – all aged care providers have been asked to review their infection control practices, to ensure that they are well equipped to manage and respond to an outbreak.

“Providing safe, quality aged care for our senior Australians is non-negotiable,” Minister Wyatt said.

“I am closely monitoring developments, and ensuring all Government-funded aged care facilities are prepared for infectious outbreaks, especially influenza, is a top priority.”

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