Swine flu jab may be available sooner

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The Australian government is planning to spend $44 million over a four year period on extra vaccinations for seasonal flu - this will provide enough vaccinations for another 2.2 million people which will be available from January 1st next year.

Health Minister Nicola Roxon says the current swine flu outbreak has demonstrated how severely influenza could affect vulnerable people - to date 12,000 Australians have been infected and 31 have died.

Ms Roxon says 81 swine flu victims have needed intensive care and the government might not wait for the completion of clinical trials before making a swine flu vaccine available before October.

Scientists are apparently working on whether a swine flu vaccine could be incorporated with the seasonal flu shot next year - clinical trials by pharmaceutical company CSL involving 240 adults are scheduled to begin next week in Adelaide - pregnant women and the chronically ill have been excluded from the clinical trials.

For the CSL vaccine trials - half of the volunteers will be given two shots of vaccine equal to the standard dose of seasonal flu vaccine, three weeks apart while the other half will be given two double doses.

Ms Roxon says if the intensity of the disease changes and early trial results indicate that the vaccine is safe, she would consider, given the appropriate advice, speeding up the process.

Plans reported in the British media that the government there was considering releasing a vaccine before clinical trials were competed have come in for criticism from the World Health Organisation (WHO) but CSL says Britain will probably rely on the results of the clinical tests under way in Australia.

The Health Minister says doctors should be wary of over-prescribing the antiviral drug Tamiflu - Ms Roxon has dismissed concerns that swine flu is becoming resistant to antiviral drugs following reports that three cases of swine flu had grown resistant to the drug overseas.

Ms Roxon says the vast majority of people have mild symptoms and do not need to take Tamiflu unless they are in a vulnerable category and or their doctor has advised it and she has urged pregnant women to avoid anyone who is sick or has swine flu symptoms as the virus has triggered the premature birth of several babies and a number of expectant mothers have needed intensive care.

As from January next year, all pregnant women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders aged 15 to 50 will be able to access the seasonal flu vaccine free from their GPs and those aged six months to 64 who are considered to be medically at risk, including the chronically ill, will also qualify for free flu shots - currently, the vaccine is only available free to seniors aged 65 and over.

According to Ms Roxon the spread of swine flu appears to have peaked but she cautions against complacency as the situation will remain difficult for months to come and health services are expected to be under extreme pressure and this may result in some elective surgery being delayed.

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