Nearly one in five aged care workers are opposed to the sector’s compulsory influenza vaccination policy, due to come in on 1 May.

The opposition exists despite the clear and present dangers of flu, especially during the dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A survey of 1,748 members of HelloCare’s Aged Care Workers Support Group revealed 18 per cent are opposed to compulsory flu vaccinations in residential aged care.

Many of the reasons given for their opposition are deeply concerning to HelloCare. It appears many aged care workers hold onto myths about the flu vaccine, not only putting their own health at risk, but also the health of the aged care residents they care for.

With it being compulsory for residential aged care workers to be vaccinated against the flu from 1 May, the findings appear at odds with policy, and raises questions about how successfully compulsory vaccinations can be implemented.

But thankfully, despite the high rate of opposition, many who said they are opposed to compulsory vaccinations also said they would receive the vaccination anyway.

Why is the flu vaccine so important for aged care workers?

Aged care workers have a special responsibility to be vaccinated to protect elderly residents, Associate Professor Michael Woodward, a geriatrician in private practice at Donvale Rehabilitation Hospital and head of aged and residential care services at Austin Health, told HelloCare.

“It’s our social and care responsibility to reduce the risk of transferring infection to our clients,” he said. 

“Aged care workers who are not being vaccinated are failing in their responsibilities to their patients,” he stated. 

Flu more deadly than COVID-19 in Australia

Associate Professor Woodward said the flu has been far more deadly in Australia than COVID-19, although of course this has not been the case overseas, where thousands have died from COVID-19 in some countries.

“Flu actually has killed more people each year in Australia than COVID-19. So, it’s very important we reduce our risk of transmitting flu, and the best way to do that is through vaccination,” he said.

In 2019, Australia recorded its highest ever number of confirmed flu cases, though the number who died was just down from 2017’s record horror flu season.

According to the WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza, Australia had 312,978 confirmed cases of the flu in 2019. There were almost 1,000 – 902 – deaths, just down from 1,181 deaths in the 2017.

On average, around 400 Australians die from the flu every year, with the elderly, unwell and the very young most at risk. 

Preserving the workforce during COVID-19

If a resident were to become sick with both the flu and COVID-19, the consequences would almost certainly be fatal. 

Data from northern Italy shows older people who contracted both coronavirus and the flu simultaneously had an almost 100 per cent mortality rate, said Associate Professor Woodward.

Another reason it’s particularly important to vaccinate during COVID-19 is to ensure aged care staff can continue to go to work.

One of the most difficult problems that have arisen during COVID-19 outbreaks in aged care facilities is staff shortages due to quarantines and fear among the workforce, so it’s more important than ever that staff are well and as many can come to work as possible.

Aged care staff are “putting themselves at risk of going off on sick leave, and in this current environment there may be shortages of aged care workers, said Associate Professor Woodward.

Now not the time for vaccination doubts

Associate Professor Woodward said the arguments we often hear against the vaccine are wrong.

“Any conception that the vaccine does not work or is dangerous is ill founded and not based on the best evidence,” he said.

Common myths about the flu vaccine 

Myth: My cousin received the flu vaccine and died a week later.

Associate Professor Woodward said in one in a million cases, a person can develop Guillain-Barré syndrome (a rare disorder in which a person’s own immune system damages their nerve cells, causing muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis). 

“It’s extremely unusual. Flu is much more fatal than the vaccine. The vaccine is as safe as any vaccine that we give,” said Associate Professor Woodward.

Myth: When I had the flu vaccine, I got sick and had to miss work.

“It’s coincidental that some people develop symptoms after vaccination and it’s not due to the vaccine,” said Associate Professor Woodward.

“The vaccine can cause a local reaction in about one in a million cases. It can make a person very unwell. That’s unusual.”

Myth: The flu vaccine weakens your body’s natural immunity, and immunity is more important than ever during COVID-19.

“That’s the view of the anti-vaxxers,” Associate Professor Woodward said. “It’s completely ill founded. It is not correct. 

The flu vaccination will become compulsory on 1 May, meaning that anyone who wishes to enter a residential aged care facility will have to show evidence they have been vaccinated. Staff who have doubts about the vaccine have a short window to overcome their gripes.

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