Millions of Australian adults missing out on free vaccines

The new UNSW Vaccine and Infection Research Lab will identify and address barriers to immunisation in adults, particularly the elderly and members of at-risk communities.


Up to 3.8 million Australian adults are putting themselves at risk of contracting potentially fatal but preventable infections by not getting free, government-sponsored vaccinations.

UNSW experts delivered the warning as they launched the UNSW Vaccine and Infection Research Lab (UNSW VIRL) – a national research centre that will tackle this serious public health issue and work to improve adult immunisation rates.

Coinciding with the launch, the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA) published a paper this week by Dr Robert Menzies called ‘Vaccine Myopia’.

The report highlights that only 1 in 2 Australian adults (51%) are receiving their free vaccines each year through the federal government’s Immunise Australia Program (IAP). This compared to 93% of children and 73% of adolescents.

The IAP currently funds adult vaccines for influenza (flu) and pneumococcal pneumonia, and this year introduced another free vaccine for shingles, available to people 70 and older. 

According to the report in the MJA, Australia has a 75% vaccination rate for flu for those 65 and older; but only a 30% vaccination rate for pneumococcal pneumonia in the same age range. That rate is at 50% for people 70 and older.

“Although our adult immunisation program is well-intentioned, our nation’s overall attitude to adult vaccination is short-sighted, and the program is not meeting its targets,” says Dr Menzies, who will play a key role in the newly-formed UNSW VIRL.  

Media and political attention has tended to focus on parents who don’t want to vaccinate their children, but Dr Menzies says the issue of unvaccinated adults needs far more attention.

“In the broader scheme of things, non-immunised children form a very small proportion of under-vaccinated Australians, and a shift in perspective is urgently required.”

“Achieving high vaccination coverage in adults is challenging, given their greater mobility and diversity of settings. However, this is likely to be more successful in preventing diseases than policies that sanction vaccine-hesitant parents.”

Head of UNSW VIRL Professor Raina MacIntyre says most of the adults missing out on free vaccines are 65 and older, and the poor uptake relates to a misconception that older Australians are less susceptible to diseases than children.

“Vaccination rates are significantly higher among infants versus their grandparents, despite the availability of free vaccines for both groups. This may reflect the lower value that society places on keeping older Australians healthy,” Professor MacIntyre says.

Other reasons for the low rate of adult immunisation may relate to the perceived effectiveness of the vaccine, potential side effects, and misunderstandings about the severity of certain diseases. 

“As a community, we must ensure maximal health gains for all people eligible for vaccination,” says Professor MacIntyre, who notes that “vaccine-preventable hospitalisations” cost Australia tens of millions of dollars each year.   

“Australians aged 65+, and those eligible for vaccinations, should take responsibility for their health and talk to their doctor, nurse or pharmacist. Immunisation against vaccine-preventable diseases saves lives.”