A game changer for vaccine coverage

  • Person receiving a vaccination injection

[Image: The Pharmacy Guild of Australia]

Kevin de Vries
By
The Pharmacy Guild of Australia
Kevin de Vries,
Senior Pharmacist Adviser
Issue
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The 2023–24 Federal Budget announced that National Immunisation Program (NIP) vaccine delivery will be expanded to community pharmacies. From 1 January 2024, those eligible will be able to receive NIP immunisations at participating local pharmacies at no cost. The move will increase patient access to and affordability of vaccination and reduce pressure on primary healthcare services.

This announcement follows the widespread uptake and demonstrated acceptance of vaccination for COVID–19 and influenza by community pharmacy over the past several years. It is also the realisation of a campaign by the Pharmacy Guild of Australia to allow pharmacists to administer all vaccines to all ages, across all jurisdictions.

Australia’s NIP provides vaccines against 17 diseases to eligible people, including migrants and refugees. Australia’s target for childhood immunisation coverage for all age groups is 95 per cent, and concerted efforts by authorities and health workers in all states and territories have seen vaccination coverage grow over the past two decades to almost reach that target.

However, Australia still experiences periodic outbreaks of vaccine-preventable infectious disease, particularly measles and pertussis; this year saw the first tetanus death in 30 years. Childhood vaccination coverage is lower in rural and remote areas and achievement of complete vaccination of children is lower in socioeconomically disadvantaged populations.

Under-vaccination of children is not necessarily due to vaccine-refusal beliefs. It may be due to the presence of unrelated illnesses at the scheduled time of vaccination, logistical barriers such as difficulty attending a clinic in opening hours, or lack of awareness of where free vaccination services are available. Another contributor is a child having been born overseas and requiring catch-up vaccines.

Over the past four years, the value of immunisation delivered through Australia’s network of community pharmacies has become evident.

  • Pharmacies administered over 10 million vaccines against COVID19, providing convenient access for communities across Australia.
  • Nearly one in four people who received an influenza vaccine in 2022 chose to do so in a community pharmacy, with more than 2.6 million influenza vaccines administered.
  • Vaccination services have been delivered to communities of all sizes across Australia.

Achieving this growth and acceptance of community pharmacy vaccination has required significant investment by the sector of both time and money in upskilling of pharmacists, training of support staff, construction and fit out of consultation rooms, purchase of vaccine refrigerators and subscription to booking and reporting software.

Pharmacies became community vaccination points for mosquito-borne Japanese encephalitis following the floods in south-eastern Australia in October 2022. In New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, pharmacists may now vaccinate against hepatitis A, hepatitis B and typhoid, further adding to the accessibility of vaccination for international travellers.

The announcement in the Federal Budget is expected to lead to wider availability and accessibility of vaccine services through community pharmacies. It will provide confidence for the sector to invest further in upskilling, training and storage for the increased number of vaccines.

Pharmacies will be able to provide ready access to NIP vaccines with no out-of-pocket costs for patients, with many potential benefits. Communities can expect that availability of a broad range of immunisation services will become another routine service that pharmacies provide.

The extension of availability of NIP vaccines recognises and consolidates the role of community pharmacy in Australia’s primary care network. The program will give pharmacists the confidence to invest further in a service their communities appreciate. It will improve accessibility and should increase vaccine coverage rates, particularly benefiting residents of rural Australia.

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