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Landmark Australian influenza collaboration finalist for Eureka Prize

Infectious disease researchers who used a decade of scientific evidence to advocate for a nationwide childhood influenza immunisation policy have earned a finalist position at the country’s most prestigious science awards – the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes.

Announced today as one of three finalists for the Australian Infectious Diseases Research Centre Eureka Prize for Infectious Diseases Research category, the Australian Paediatric Influenza Immunisation Research Group has contributed to a dramatic increase in the number of children vaccinated against flu – from just 80,000 in 2017 to an estimated 1 million in 2020.

The Influenza Group built upon a decade of research to achieve what was previously considered impossible – successfully advocating for the flu vaccine to be included on the National Immunisation Program (NIP) for young children for the first time in Australia’s history.

Associate Professor Chris Blyth, Co-Director of the Wesfarmers Centre of Vaccines and Infectious Diseases, based at Telethon Kids Institute, said the group first came together in 2010 after a number of adverse reactions in Western Australia related to one vaccine brand saw influenza immunisation rates plummet to less than 10 per cent.

“Confidence in influenza immunisation was shaken, and all childhood flu vaccination programs were suspended. Parents saw the flu vaccine as a potentially risky optional extra, leaving kids vulnerable to the life-threatening complications that see children fighting for their lives in intensive care each winter,” Associate Professor Blyth said.

“We needed to act fast – forming a united front with paediatric researchers and vaccine experts from around Australia, all working together towards the ultimate outcome of protecting our children from flu.

“Initially involving the Wesfarmers Centre of Vaccines and Infectious Diseases – Telethon Kids Institute, The University of Western Australia, and the Western Australian Department of Health, our collaboration quickly grew to include expertise from the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS), the Paediatric Active Enhanced Disease Surveillance (PAEDS) Network, the InFLUenza Complications Alert Network (FluCAN) and the AusVaxSafety Consortium.

“Using our combined skills and knowledge to demonstrate its safety and effectiveness, including the development of a nationwide vaccine surveillance system, we were able to restore public, provider and policy makers’ confidence in influenza vaccination. The flu vaccine was then included on the NIP for children aged 6 months to under 5 years for the first time ever in 2020,” Associate Professor Blyth said.

Professor Kristine Macartney, Director of the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance,
said the implementation of this life-saving public health measure is set to reduce the number of children in this age group hospitalised by severe influenza by over 50 per cent.

“The Australian Paediatric Influenza Immunisation Research Group worked hard to establish a rigorous and scientifically informed path to recovery. The results speak for themselves – an incredible 1 million young children set to be protected from influenza each year,” Professor Macartney said.

“The work of this group has also made a significant contribution to influenza vaccination research on a global scale – Australia is now recognised as having the best safety data for influenza vaccines. This data, derived from parents and families, is used throughout the world.”

The Eureka Prize for Infectious Diseases Research is awarded for outstanding infectious diseases research that benefits, or has the potential to benefit, human health.

The Australian Museum Eureka Prize winners will be announced in Sydney on 24 November via a live-streamed digital event. Find out more at the Australian Museum website.

Photo credit: Alecia Robertson, courtesy of the Immunisation Foundation of Australia.