Antivirals & vaccines

Page last updated: 06 January 2011


Medicines known as antivirals may have some effectiveness in preventing the development of infection in people exposed to the influenza virus. When used as a treatment, antivirals can reduce the duration of symptoms and illness. To be effective, antivirals have to be administered either before or soon after a person shows symptoms.

The influenza virus can adapt to become resistant to antivirals used against it, in the same way as some bacteria have adapted to resist antibiotics. It is therefore important to understand that the use of antiviral medication in a pandemic will depend on the stage of the outbreak in Australia, and will be carefully monitored to ensure effective use as part of the broader strategy to reduce illness, contain the spread and minimise the impact of a pandemic.

The Australian Government has developed a significant stockpile of antivirals to be used in the event of a pandemic. The Australian Health Management Plan for Pandemic Influenza 2014 details the Government's strategy for the use of antivirals.

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Vaccination is the key tool to limit the number of individuals infected as it allows individuals to be immunised without experiencing disease. A vaccine that gives good protection against a pandemic influenza virus can only be developed after the new virus strain appears, and therefore may take several months to produce, and will initially be in short supply.

The Australian Government has arrangements in place to develop a suitable vaccine as soon as such a virus emerges. Once a sufficient supply of the vaccine has been manufactured, all Australians will be able to receive the vaccine.

The seasonal flu vaccine will not protect against a new pandemic flu. Nevertheless, in the lead up to a pandemic, it will still be important to vaccinate high-risk groups against any seasonal strains of flu currently circulating. The pneumococcal vaccine is also important for the elderly, as it can prevent secondary pneumococcal pneumonia.

Vaccinations outside a pandemic

Because the flu virus is constantly changing, you need to be vaccinated every year to be protected against the strains of seasonal flu virus which are most likely to be around during that winter.. The best time to be vaccinated is in autumn to allow time for the vaccine to work before the flu season starts. Even if you received a flu shot towards the end of the last flu season, you should still be vaccinated again before the next flu season to continue to be protected.

The National Immunisation Program is a joint Commonwealth and state and territory initiative which provides free vaccinations against 16 diseases, including flu. The National Immunisation Program provides free flu vaccinations for people at high risk of complications from flu, including those who are:
65 years old and over;
pregnant women;
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who are aged 15 years and over;
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who are aged six months and less than five years old; and
anyone six months of age and over who has a chronic medical condition such as severe asthma, lung or heart disease, low immunity or diabetes.

You can find out more about the National Immunisation Program at the Immunise Australia website