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The Health Wrap: learning to swim, why children in some countries are getting shorter, the new variant, climate questions – and seasons greetings

Will the Albanese Government step up and do something meaningful to ensure affordable access to dental care for all Australians?

What might the new COVID variant mean for the festive season?

And why are children in Britain shorter than children in other countries in Europe?

These and other important public health questions are raised below by Adjunct Associate Professor Lesley Russell.

The quotable?

The Lowitja Journal recognises that structured knowledge systems of First Nations peoples, developed over millennia to underpin thriving and healthy communities, offer solutions to the survival and flourishing of First Nations peoples, and for the world.”


Lesley Russell writes:

The information roll-out around the ongoing pandemic and its consequences continues apace.

A recent paper in The Lancet Infectious Diseases has caught the attention of many who work in the COVID-19 area.

This research used the large data system collected by the US Department of Veterans Affairs to look at the long-term consequences for patients admitted to hospital for COVID-19 (between 1 March, 2020 and 30 June, 2022) and patients admitted to hospital for seasonal influenza.

It found that hospital admission for COVID-19 was associated with higher long-term risks of death and adverse health outcomes in nearly every organ system (except for the pulmonary system) and significant cumulative excess Disability-Adjusted Life Years (DALYs) than hospital admission for seasonal influenza.

The authors note that both viruses cause a substantial cumulative burden of health loss and they call for greater efforts to prevent hospital admission and greater attention to the care needs of people with long-term health effects due to either seasonal influenza or SARS-CoV-2 infection.New SARS-CoV-2 variants

Just in time for winter in the Northern Hemisphere, a new SARS-CoV-2 variant, JN.1, is on the rise.

An Omicron subvariant, JN.1 was first detected in the United States in September and is termed “a notable descendent lineage” of the Omicron subvariant BA.2.86 (also known as Pirola) by the World Health Organization (there’s a useful WHO table to track these subvariants here).

While wastewater monitoring shows a rapid rise in JN-1 in the United States, it is currently reported more often in Europe (see for example this report from Italy), but that might be a function of which countries have better reporting systems.

See more information from the WHO.The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has indicated that the continued growth of JN.1 infections suggests that the variant is either more transmissible or better at evading our immune systems than its BA.2.86 parent.

Do we have any idea who is tracking new variants in Australia?

Here’s what the website of the Communicable Diseases Genomic Network says:

“The CDGN VOC Working Group is responsible for ongoing monitoring and surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 variants literature and global events to inform Australia’s national approach in detecting and reporting of Variants of Concern (VOC), Variants of Interest (VOI) and Variants Under Monitoring (VUM), and mutations of interest reported in the literature. The working group is comprised of laboratory and government representatives with expertise in bioinformatics, genomic epidemiology, viral evolution, phylodynamics and medical microbiology.”

But there’s no mention of JN.1 and – apart from one mention dated August 2023 – it doesn’t appear that this website has been substantially updated since 2022.

The good news is that research suggests that the new COVID-19 vaccines formulated to target Omicron variant XBB. 1.5 appear to work against this newest variant.

Where are the patient supports for long COVID?

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) has spoken out about concerns that patients with long COVID in Australia are being left without necessary support and treatment options.

The cessation of COVID-19-specific funding by Federal and State and Territory Governments has led to the closure of a number of long COVID clinics. According to an ABC investigation, at least five of 23 long COVID clinics have now closed or scaled back operations.

This news comes despite the call from the recent Parliamentary report on long COVID for – among other recommendations – that “funding be provided in partnership with state health departments for selected public hospitals to develop multidisciplinary long COVID clinics linked to nationally consistent referral guidelines for screening patients with challenging long COVID complications”.

That report also called for “a nationally coordinated research program, led by the Department of Health and Aged Care (preferably the Centre for Disease Control), to coordinate and fund COVID-19 and long COVID research”.

To date there has been no Federal Government response to the report.

See Governments urged to end the neglect of long COVID prevention and treatment published in Croakey Health Media.

Posted on 14 December, 2023

Moreover, as far as I can determine, none of the $50 million provided for long-COVID research at the time the report was released has gone out. Grant opportunities were announced in September and applications closed 1 November.

Note that on 20 December the terms will expire for all but one of the members of the advisory committee set up to provide input to the Health Minister on how this $50 million will be spent.

Clarification on who is eligible for new vaccine boosters

There has been a lot of confusion about the Australian recommendations for who should get the new COVID-19 vaccines. The Department of Health and Aged Care (DoHAC) has finally issued some clear advice, clearly presented.


Mistrust of vaccines

One of the lingering consequences of Donald Trump’s presidency is an increased suspicion of vaccines that is not just confined to the United States, where extreme anti-vaccine sentiment is consuming the MAGA base of the Republican party.

See also this article in The Sydney Morning Herald that quotes Professor Julie Leask on Australian anti-vaccine sentiments towards the COVID-19 vaccines.

Now data from the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance shows that Australia’s child vaccination rates have fallen for a second year, due to what experts ascribe to “lingering mistrust” – and also to the effects of the pandemic and the increasing difficulty in getting affordable access to primary care.

The proportion of Australian five-year-olds fully vaccinated with routine inoculations – including for polio, measles and hepatitis B – has fallen 1.4 per cent, from a peak of 94.8 per cent in 2020, to 93.4 per cent in 2022, with a continued decline in the first half of 2023. Declines in fully vaccinated coverage in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were greater than in children overall.

It’s not just early childhood vaccinations. In the past two years, the proportion of 15-year-old Australian girls and boys who had received at least one dose of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine by their 15th birthday also slipped 1.3 per cent and 1.8 per cent respectively, to 85.3 per cent and 83.1 per cent.

Missed or delayed vaccinations have become persistent issues, posing ongoing challenges in safeguarding children against preventable diseases, UNICEF Australia