NT ‘does not currently plan’ to expand free flu vaccination schedule, despite rise in cases

The Northern Territory has recorded its highest number of flu cases in at least five years, putting significant pressure on an already overstretched hospital system.

New data released by NT Health shows there have been 2,162 cases of flu detected so far this year, more than double the number from just a fortnight ago.

This year’s numbers are also significantly higher than the past two years, when the COVID-19 pandemic reduced annual flu cases to just 76 and 292 respectively.

The latest figures are also higher than the two years before the pandemic, when 1,878 and 1,219 cases were detected in 2018 and 2019.

Australian Medical Association NT President Robert Parker said the impact of influenza was more pronounced in the NT than in other jurisdictions due to high rates of chronic disease.

“The flu itself is a very difficult experience for a lot of people, but when you have underlying health conditions, especially heart and lung conditions, it can make them worse and potentially lead to hospitalization,” said the Dr Parker.

Robert Parker said the large number of cases in the territory was concerning.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

NT Health said there have been nearly 500 emergency department presentations this year due to the flu.

About 140 people have been hospitalized in recent months, while 20 are currently being treated for the flu.

Dr Parker said he would not be surprised if non-emergency medical services were suspended due to the current rise in flu-related hospitalizations.

NT Health said it has plans in place to respond to the flu wave, including reconfiguring resources if necessary.

AMA NT wants free flu shots for all Territorians

In the Northwest Territories, flu shots are free for people classified as vulnerable — including the elderly, young children, Indigenous Territories and people with chronic illnesses — as well as medical staff.

Although that’s about half the population of NT, Dr Parker said the government should follow the example of several other states and provide free vaccines to everyone.

“It’s almost cutting off your nose to upset your face,” he said.

“You save money on vaccines, but the cost of your medical care increases exponentially because of all the sick people coming to the emergency room and needing medical attention.”

A photograph of the Royal Darwin Hospital, with a large 'Emergency' arrow pointing to the main entrance.
There have been nearly 500 presentations to emergency departments in NT this year due to influenza.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

Chief Minister Natasha Fyles said there would be no change to the current policy.

“To ensure those most at risk are prioritized, NT Health is not currently planning to expand access to free flu vaccinations,” Ms. Fyles said.

The Pharmacy Guild of Australia said there has been a significant increase in the number of people seeking flu shots this year.

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