The Interesting History of the Flu Vaccine

The history of the flu virus

The flu is a fascinating subject. Most Australians are exposed in one way or another. Whether you yourself have had the flu or you’ve seen a family member go through it, you are likely aware of its effects and the illness it can cause the vulnerable, such as children and the elderly. With the 2020 flu season almost upon us, we’ve pulled together some interesting facts about the flu vaccine and the history of the flu in Australia.

The influenza virus was first isolated in 1933, giving rise to a new era in which all of humanity could be protected from one of the world’s most prolific killers. This breakthrough changed thinking about influenza, as previously the consensus was that the flu was caused by a bacterium known as Haemophilus Influenzae.

When was the flu vaccine invented?

The very first monovalent flu vaccine was invented in 1938 and was widely used to inoculate United States defence forces during World War 2. The first bivalent influenza vaccine was developed in 1942 as a response to the discovery of Influenza Type B. In 1978, the first trivalent flu vaccine was introduced. This vaccine typically includes two influenza A strains and one influenza B strain.

In 2012, the first quadrivalent flu vaccine was licensed in the United States. Since then, a variant of the quadrivalent vaccine has become commonly recommended by WHO each year.

How is the flu vaccine determined?

Starting in 1973, the World Health Organisation began issuing guidance to all nations on the composition of the flu vaccine for each coming flu season. Each year, the World Health Organisation meets and may make different recommendations to previous years based on the data they have available and their expectations for which flu strains are likely to be the most widespread the following year.

Most nations will then have a body that determines the flu shot based on the advice of the World Health Organisation. In Australia, this body is the Australian Influenza Vaccine Committee (AIVC). They meet each year at the Therapeutic Goods Administration in Canberra to determine the make-up of the flu vaccine for the upcoming flu season.

Click here to read more about how the 2020 flu shot is determined.

The history of the flu in Australia

In 1919, the Spanish flu arrived in Victoria. For some time it had been held at bay through the extensive quarantining and blockading procedures put in place at all ports. Over the months following its arrival, it spread throughout New South Wales and the rest of the country. During that time, approximately 10,000 Australians died. The Spanish flu was remarkable for its tendency to cause fatalities in young adults, rather than the elderly or young children.

1957 saw the rise of the next major flu pandemic, known as the Asian flu. This flu was far more widespread than the Spanish flu, but with a much lower fatality rate. This was one of the first instances in the modern era of a major global pandemic originating from bird viruses. In 1968, Australia experienced the Hong Kong flu. This pandemic was relatively mild, with global deaths estimated at one million.

2009 was the year of the H1N1 flu. This strain was new and was believed to have arisen from a combination of human, avian and swine flu. It was first identified in Mexico and quickly spread around the world. For most people who contracted this flu, symptoms were mild. However, for a select few it caused serious complications in the lungs and severe pneumonia. Almost 40,000 cases were recorded in Australia and 191 people died. The median age of death was 53, whereas normal, seasonal flu has a median age of death of around 83.

The flu in recent years

Over time, Australia has become better at weathering each flu season. Government programs to improve accessibility to the flu vaccine for the elderly and young children ensure that more people are vaccinated. Growing acceptance of the flu vaccine and corporate programs to inoculate their workforce have also assisted in reducing the number of infected and annual deaths from the flu.

2017 Flu Deaths in Australia (source: Australian Bureau of Statistics)

Get your flu shot!

Avoiding the flu should be high on everyone’s agenda this flu season. Save yourself the wasted time and the days of feeling terrible with a simple jab right at the start of the season.

If you’d like to get your 2020 flu shot, please click here.


You may qualify for a BULK BILLED TELEPHONE CALL with a GP. To find out if you qualify, complete our online form or call our Tele Health Coronavirus hotline on 1300 411 748.