There is broad support for a government initiative to roll out flu vaccinations to aged care workers, but provider peaks have called on the community to also ensure best practice is followed.
In a joint statement on Sunday, Minister for Health Greg Hunt and Minister for Aged Care Key Wyatt said Australia’s chief medical officer Professor Brendan Murphy would look at ways to boost vaccination rates among residential aged care workers including making the flu vaccination compulsory.
The federal government proposal to vaccinate all aged care workers follows an increase in deaths this winter including several residents at two facilities in Victoria and Tasmania.
Additionally Mr Wyatt has instructed the Australian Aged Care Quality Agency to conduct an urgent review into these two facilities along with an examination of infectious disease management in all aged care facilities (see related story).
While providers have a duty of care to provide the safest possible environment for residents, there is no requirement for aged care workers to be vaccinated under law.
Mr Hunt said there could not continue to be this situation where people with already low immunity were at risk from others who may be infected.
The proposal to increase vaccination rates among aged care workers has been welcomed by the full gamut of peak bodies for aged care providers, seniors and doctors, with some supporting compulsory vaccinations (see below).
Australian Medical Association president Michael Gannon told The Sydney Morning Herald that it was “utterly irresponsible” for aged care workers to work without a flu vaccination, while noting the challenge in making it mandatory as an individual could not be compelled to have one.
The provider peaks Aged and Community Services Australia and Leading Age Services Australia did not echo calls for compulsory vaccinations but both said they would work with government to improve measures to ensure as many aged care residents and staff as possible were protected from the spread of influenza.
They also said many aged care providers already encouraged staff to be immunised through workplace immunisation programs.
ACSA CEO Pat Sparrow said vaccination alone did not prevent the spread of infectious diseases and that other prevention measures were important.
“Common sense plays a part and, in the context of a close community environment such as a residential aged care facility, the most important thing is to stay away from a facility if you are unwell – something that applies to families, visitors, staff, and indeed anyone coming into contact with older Australians particularly vulnerable to the spread of infection,” Ms Sparrow said.
ACSA is now surveying its members to understand their views on mandatory flu shots for staff.
LASA CEO Sean Rooney said mandatory influenza vaccinations for the aged care workforce may be an important tool in a mix of measures to control an outbreak or risk of infection.
“As members of the community, it is vital that we be vigilant and exercise our ongoing responsibility to ensure that if we are feeling unwell and suspect we may have the influenza virus, we do not enter an aged care facility,” he said.
Support for compulsory vaccination
COTA Australia chief executive Ian Yates said he had been concerned for some time that rates of flu vaccination among aged care staff and doctors who visit facilities were “unacceptably low and inconsistent between facilities”.
He said aged care providers had a legal obligation to ensure residents lived in a safe environment, which should include ensuring that staff were not carriers of the flu virus into nursing homes.
“In some parts of the country health authorities have worked successfully to require that all staff are vaccinated, but this is not a universal requirement and it should be,” Mr Yates said.
National Seniors chief advocate Ian Henschke said the seniors advocacy group was surprised compulsory vaccination for aged care workers didn’t already exist.
“We support this move as common sense and life-saving,” Mr Henschke said.
GP peak body The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) recommended aged care staff have a flu vaccination.
RACGP acting president Dr Edwin Kruys said influenza vaccinations could be less effective for older people and that along with chronic illnesses and close living conditions meant aged care residents were at high risk of developing infections and consequently dying due to influenza and pneumonia.
“It is important to prevent people introducing the influenza virus into residential aged care facilities by vaccinating staff and healthcare workers and educating visitors to stay away when unwell,” Dr Kryus said.
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