Radio interview with Minister Butler and Jacqui Felgate, 3AW - 23 May 2024

Read the transcript of Minister Butler's interview with Jacqui Felgate on shingles vaccine; COVID; Ozempic replica ban

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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JACQUI FELGATE, HOST: Linda, stay on the line because I do have on the line now the Federal Health Minister, Mark Butler. Minister, really appreciate your time this afternoon.
FELGATE: I wanted to get you on because of confusion like Linda there. We took so many calls throughout the week with people saying there's waitlists at GP services. One GP in Geelong actually rang in and said she had a wait list of a thousand people for Shingrix. Can you explain why and who's eligible?
BUTLER: Okay, the vaccines are on the National Immunisation Program, on the advice of a group of experts called the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee. We have the PBS that your listeners will be familiar with. It’s a terrific system. It means that people can get access to really important medicines at affordable prices. Some of these medicines, say for cancer, might cost $300,000 for a single course of treatment, you get it at the cost of a $30 script if you're a general patient or a $7 script if you're a pension or concession card holder. Vaccines operate the same way. The vaccine is put before this committee, and they assess it for cost effectiveness, for clinical effectiveness.  They then make a recommendation to me as the Minister for Health, about who should get this vaccine. This is not a new system, it's been operating for many, many, many, years. It's set out in legislation of the Commonwealth Parliament, that's been there for a very long time indeed.

Now, last year, this committee looked at this terrific new shingles vaccine called Shingrix. It lasts much longer than the older vaccine, and it's much more effective in terms of actually preventing you from getting shingles if you come into contact with it. It recommended that anyone over the age of 65 should be given this vaccine for free on the National Immunisation Program and for people under the age of 65, as Linda has said, there are some groups of Australians who have particular types of compromised immunity that this group of experts said are also very important to vaccinate with shingles. Now, this is how the system operates, we then followed up that decision with, I think, about $800 or $900 million of funding to deliver that recommendation. We now have the most comprehensive shingles vaccine program in the world, with the possible exception of Germany. We're in a race with Germany, but we have the most comprehensive shingles vaccine programme in the world. I just want to say it's really important that these decisions be based on the advice of the experts. You don't want politicians deciding who does or who doesn't get vaccines or particular medicines.
FELGATE: Do we have a shortage of Shingrix and how long until it will be back in stock?
BUTLER: So coming to the numbers, we did the usual projections about how many people we thought would go to their pharmacist or their doctor for this - because you can get it for free at your GP or at your pharmacist. We projected numbers pretty generously, but I've got to say, the take up of this has been far more than we expected - about 40 per cent higher than we expected. So, there has been over the last several weeks, some shortages of supply of this vaccine. We have, at the Commonwealth level, been negotiating with the company that makes this vaccine, GSK, and have secured about 750,000 additional doses, which have been coming into the country over the course of May, being tested as they have to be by the TGA, the medicines authority. I think about 175,000 additional doses will hit Victoria next week. There already are, we think, about 60,000 doses that pharmacists and GPs have in their fridges.
FELGATE:  Will that be enough then, to fulfil the shortfall of the 40 per cent extra uptake than what you expected?
BUTLER: Ye, it will, because in addition to those additional doses, there are a whole lot of other supplies that we've already bought that are, scheduled to come to Australia over the next couple of months. We're very confident that will fill the gap. It reflects a huge level of interest in the community because before this went on to the Immunisation Program so you could get it for free, it costs about $600 bucks, about $300 a dose, and you need two doses of this very effective vaccine. I'm really proud of the fact that we've got, you know, the most comprehensive program in the world for shingles vaccination. It's been a little bit more popular than we expected, but we've gone out we've bought the additional 750,000 doses, including, many, many, that will go to Victoria next week, and we're confident we'll get back on track.
FELGATE:  Is it that people are fearful of getting the shingles? Is that why so many more people are taking it up? Is it because it's now free for the over 65’s? Has there been an increase in the illness itself?
BUTLER: No, it's because it's free and people know either through experience or loved ones or friends who've got it, it hits you pretty hard. The advice, very much was it particularly hits older people hard. So that's why the decision of these medicines experts, and this is reflected around the world is, that this vaccine is particularly important for older Australians because if they get shingles, they can really suffer, end up in hospital, have some quite serious complications.
FELGATE: Now can I just pivot a little bit to COVID. We spoke to our Chief Health Officer here, Dr Clare Looker, on Monday, and she said Victorians have experienced a 37 per cents rise in COVID hospitalisations in just the past week, and it's expected to jump higher. So where are we sitting in terms of other states?
BUTLER:  Pretty similar, the whole country has seen a big increase in COVID numbers over the last couple of weeks. There was a wave over the course of summer that started probably in late October-November, and it went for quite a while. It only really bottomed out in April, and already we're seeing another wave start, and this has been the cycle for a couple of years now we're seeing waves come every 4 to 6 months. I think the challenge for this wave is that, first of all, it's heading into winter. So, you know, people are a little bit more susceptible for two respiratory illnesses, particularly if you're older. It's also coinciding with an increase in flu. We're going to be battling flu and this latest COVID wave at the same time. It is certainly happening in Victoria, we've got those reports, but I'm in South Australia, it's been happening here as well. We're also seeing numbers rise in New South Wales, WA and Tas. It is a reminder of the importance of taking protection, particularly if you're older if you haven't had a COVID booster in the last six months and you're over 75, you should get one, now is a really good time. If you haven't had your flu shot for 2024, and you're over 65, you should also get that as well, now is the time.
FELGATE:  Just on flu, 75 per cent jump in flu cases  in the past fortnight in Victoria, and the Chief Health Officer told us that a quarter of our cases here are actually really young Victorians under 10. You must be concerned about that?
BUTLER: Yeah, I am, really concerned about that. We've been doing a fair bit of advertising out to parents about the importance of considering a vaccination for your under five-year-olds, in particular. I think COVID was not as serious an illness for under-fives, and I fear that, some parents are thinking that the same is true of flu, it's not. Flu can be very dangerous for under five-year-olds. So, some of the hospitalisations we see for flu are very, very young babies and toddlers and infants. It is very important you consider a flu shot for your under five-year-old as well.
FELGATE: Is there a vaccination fatigue creeping in here following on from the pandemic?
BUTLER: Yeah, there's no doubt there's a bit of vaccination fatigue right around the world. The World Health Organisation is reporting that right around the world we're seeing a drop off. We've seen, I think, about ten quarters in a row, so that's two and a half years of steady declines in childhood immunisation rates. I'm not talking about COVID or flu, I'm talking about the usual vaccinations that you start your babies on and then carry through the first few years of their life. Now they're still pretty high, around 90 per cent, but they have been dropping. So, that is something we're seeing right around the world. It's something that all countries are worried about. I'm worried about, and again, we're trying to push out some good strong evidence-based information campaigns to parents about the importance of protecting your children against some of those age old diseases like measles and –
FELGATE: Smallpox –
BUTLER: And all those other things.  
FELGATE: Just quickly, Minister, before I let you go, on Ozempic and the replicas here being banned in four months time, how significant are the risks of these replica Ozempic drugs? And have you seen younger people trying to access them?
BUTLER: We have, part of the challenge, Jacqui, has been that we don't have a good line of sight about what's happening here. There's no reporting of who is, accessing these drugs, there's no Medicare reporting, there's no PBS reporting, there's no obligation on the people making and selling these drugs to issue a report if there's what we call an adverse event so someone gets sick, or even worse, after taking one of these things. Your listeners will know that millions of Australians take medicines every single day, and they do that in the confidence that we have a system that guarantees that we know what is in those medicines, and we know the circumstances in which they were manufactured so that the facilities, the equipment, all of that was top notch, it had been inspected by the authorities and was fully accredited. We know nothing about the circumstances in which this sort of fake or replica Ozempic has been manufactured. I've seen some of the footage of some of the rooms, they're filthy, they're in back rooms, they're not accredited, no confidence that the stuff is being done in a clean, safe fashion. That's really why I felt I had to take action. These have become large scale manufacturing operations using a carve out within the medicines safety system that does allow doctors and pharmacists on a one off basis, to decide that a particular patient of theirs does need a medicine or does need an ointment, for example that's not available on the market, and they'll manufacture, or what's called compound, that medicine or that ointment on the premises and give it to that individual patient. What we've seen now is tens of thousands of these replica Ozempic doses being manufactured. We don't know where, we don't know what's being put into them. It's a very significant public safety risk and the clearest advice I got from the authorities was that we needed to shut it down. They'd gone through a consultation process, state and territory governments supported it, the medical board, the pharmacy board, Diabetes Australia. All of those bodies looked at and said, look, this is a public safety risk and we need to shut it down.
FELGATE: Mark Butler is the Federal Health Minister, really appreciate your time this afternoon, Minister.
BUTLER: Thanks, Jacqui. 

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