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News & Trends - Pharmaceuticals

Shingles Awareness Week overshadowed by delays in GSK vaccine access

Health Industry Hub | February 26, 2024 |

Pharma News: This Shingles Awareness Week (26 February to 3 March) coincides with ongoing challenges voiced by healthcare professionals in accessing GSK’s Shingrix vaccine. Despite last year’s announcement by Federal Health Minister Mark Butler, revealing eligibility for 5 million Australians over 65 and immunocompromised individuals, the vaccine’s $800 million rollout has faced delays.

Healthcare professionals nationwide are struggling to meet the demands of their patients for the two-dose course of GSK’s Shingrix, which is replacing CSL/MSD’s Zostavax on the National Immunisation Program (NIP).

During the recent Estimates, Senator Anne Ruston expressed concerns raised by doctors in South Australia and the Australian Medical Association (AMA) regarding Shingrix vaccine access. She questioned the Department of Health’s stance on supply adequacy, to which Helen Grinbergs, First Assistant Secretary, Emergency Management, responded “We don’t model for everyone seeking that immunisation at once. There is no particular rush for people to get the Shingrix vaccine, acknowledging that there is high demand for it.”

This statement contradicted claims from the Immunisation Coalition chair, Dr Rod Pearce, who asserted that there are challenges in accessing the Shingrix vaccine. Senator Ruston challenged the Department’s position, saying “What I’m suggesting here is that in Australia there isn’t enough of the vaccination to meet the demand at the moment.”

Professor Tony Lawler, Deputy Secretary of the Health Products Regulation Group, Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), said “There are no factors that have led to an identified and notified shortage of this product in Australia. We don’t have a notified shortage of the production from the sponsor.”

Ms Grinbergs defended the government’s efforts, stating “There are over 1,077,000 doses that have already been delivered to jurisdictions since the commencement of the program on the first of November 2023. There’s a further 144,864 doses scheduled for delivery by the end of February. That equates to over 1.2 million doses [for 600,000 individuals] in just over three months.

“We anticipate that by the end of June, there will be 1.7 million doses distributed to providers. What we’re seeing through the Australian Immunisation Register is that 555,693 individuals have actually been administered the vaccine as at 11th of February.”

Senator Ruston pointed out that the numbers fell significantly short. She argued “5 million Australians were promised access to the shingles vaccine, which means we need 10 million doses in order for us to meet the demand. You’ve just told me that 555,693 have accessed the vaccine – that is just over 10% of Australians who were promised this vaccination have been able to get it.”

She added “On that basis, there are 4,150,000 Australians that have been promised this vaccine, who will not be able to get access to it this year. This is because the government has under ordered the vaccine and that is why we have seen these concerns.”

The controversy surrounding the vaccine rollout comes at a time when a survey conducted by GSK Australia reveals a stark contrast between public perception and personal risk. While 62% of respondents perceive shingles as having an ‘extremely negative’ impact, only 14% believe they are extremely likely to be personally at risk of the disease.

Leading expert Professor Tony Cunningham, Director of the Centre for Virus Research (WIMR) and Professor for the Faculty of Medicine & Health at the University of Sydney, urged Australians over 50 to consider their shingles risk.

He emphasised “If you’ve had chickenpox, the virus can remain in your body, kept dormant by your immune system. As you age, there is a decline in your immunity that can leave you susceptible to the reactivation of the virus, and if this occurs, reactivation of the virus leads to shingles.”

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