Protecting the vulnerable

An image of UQ Doctor of Medicine student and The VacSeen Project co-director Jeremy Hunt standing in front of a cityscape mural in Brisbane. A rainbow is beaming through stormy skies in the background..

UQ Doctor of Medicine student and The VacSeen Project co-director Jeremy Hunt. Image: Anjanette Webb

UQ Doctor of Medicine student and The VacSeen Project co-director Jeremy Hunt. Image: Anjanette Webb

Boost for homeless as UQ students launch free flu vaccine project

By Robert Burgin

Jeremy Hunt and his student colleagues wanted to do something to help the community. And it was the realisation that many homeless people still pay out of their own pocket for protection from the flu that sparked them into action.

The second-year Doctor of Medicine student and six of his friends have since started The VacSeen Project, helping to vaccinate homeless people in South East Queensland against influenza, for free.

“Removing barriers to universal healthcare is something we are all passionate about,” Hunt said.

“When we realised this was a particular problem, we got together and thought, ‘Hey, let’s do something about it’.

“I’d been thinking for a while how I could do something to benefit society. Rather than wait until graduating from medical school, I wanted to start now.”

Like Hunt, the other directors of the The VacSeen Project, Jack Kelso-Ribbe, Pele Toussaint, Lili Wackwitz, Varun Karnik, Hannah Bates, and Michael Fielding, are all associated with UQ.

Kelso-Ribbe, Toussaint, and Bates are fellow Doctor of Medicine students; Fielding is studying a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Laws; while Wackwitz is studying a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Commerce. Karnuk is a Bachelor of Biomedical Science graduate (2019) now studying medicine at Griffith University.

An image of the The VacSeen Project directors.

The VacSeen Project directors.

The VacSeen Project directors.

To date, they have partnered with Inclusive Health Clinic in South Brisbane to facilitate the vaccination of more than 200 at-risk people who otherwise would not be protected from the flu.

They are also working with Brisbane Youth Service on plans to extend the project to vulnerable people in the 15–25 age bracket.

The VacSeen Project raises funds through both private and online contributions, and donations have arrived in the form of money, voluntary work from health professionals, and free vaccines.

“The response has been quite overwhelming: it’s taken on a life of its own,” Hunt said.

“We’ve received vaccine doses from GPs and pharmacies who have heard about The VacSeen Project, we’ve received funding from individuals and organisations and, generally, people have been super-positive about the concept.

“We were even invited to a meeting with the Lady Mayoress, Nina Schrinner, who is Chair of the Brisbane Lord Mayor’s Charitable Trust, and we have submitted a grant application we are hopeful about.”

The demonstrated need for The VacSeen Project was reinforced when project directors started discussing numbers with providers of homeless health care.

Although the flu vaccine is relatively affordable at between $15 and $20, if a health clinic orders 200 vaccines from its already stretched budget, it means funds being diverted from other necessary services.

And, while some homeless people are entitled to free flu vaccines if aged 65 and over, are pregnant, suffer chronic health conditions or identify as Indigenous, many fall through the cracks.

Furthermore, entitlement to a free vaccine does not necessarily guarantee uptake by individuals, with barriers such as mental health, personal beliefs and discomfort coming into play.

“Cost is one barrier, but accessibility is certainly another,” Hunt said.

“Some people might not want to visit a health clinic.

“In the future we envision an outreach program where we can go to a hostel or set up next to a street van, and people affected by homelessness can be administered a vaccine in an environment they are accustomed to.

“We’ve partnered with some amazing health clinics so far and look forward to opportunities to partner with other great organisations down the track.

“Another key activity in which we hope to become more prominent is advocacy.

“We will call on the Queensland Government to follow the precedent set by South Australia in allowing the homeless free flu vaccines at any immunisation clinic or general practice.”

Image: Watercolor_Concept/Abobe Stock

An image of a homeless man sitting on steps holding a sign, saying "Homeless, please help".

A past school captain and OP1 student at Brisbane Grammar School, Hunt also works as a researcher for public policy thinktank the Grattan Institute and lectures undergraduates in anatomy.

An image of UQ Doctor of Medicine student and The VacSeen Project co-director Jeremy Hunt standing in front of a cityscape mural in Brisbane.

UQ student Jeremy Hunt.

UQ student Jeremy Hunt.

Of the other directors, Kelso-Ribbe is president of the UQ Towards International Medical Equity (TIME) organisation, Toussaint is UQ’s Australian Medical Students Association Global Health representative, while Wackwitz was former vice-president of the UQ Student Union.

Karnik was awarded first-class honours for his biomedicine thesis, Bates is the current second-year representative for UQ Medicine students, and Fielding runs the UQ Law Society publication The Obiter.

For those wanting to help, remember it costs less than $20 to help vaccinate somebody, and donations can be made 24 hours a day via The VacSeen Project website.

You can also volunteer as a healthcare professional or advocate by reaching out to the founders.