This year’s flu season is expected to cause 4000 deaths among Australians, as medical professionals cross their fingers the rate of infections slows before the winter peak.
Already this year, the rate of laboratory-confirmed diagnoses is triple that of historical averages at the same time of the year.
There have been almost 40,000 confirmed influenza cases in the country this year. There were 58,500 recorded for the entire 2018 calendar year.
While the average annual death rate due to complications from influenza is between 3000 and 4000, this year’s season is so dangerous for two reasons, medical experts revealed on Tuesday.
With last year’s season comparatively mild to 2017 (which is considered the worst influenza year since the 2009 swine flu epidemic), there is a reduced community immunity, resulting in more people being at risk of contracting the disease, said Immunisation Coalition chairman Professor Robert Booy.
The second contributing factor is the double-hit effect of the influenza that’s circulating the country.
Professor Booy explained it was a unique season in that there were two types of influenza A – H1 and H3 strains – when usually it was one or the other causing the damage.
“[This year] has been really strange … There has been a sustained and rising summer and autumn surge that began at the end of last year and is continuing to increase,” Professor Booy said.
The concern now is the traditional peak of the flu season – June through to September – is still to come, and the rate of cases shows no signs of slowing. Health professionals have again renewed their urge for Australians to get vaccinated.
Professor Booy was one of four medical experts who addressed an Australian Science Media Centre briefing.
They also outlined the key sectors of the community who are most at risk of contracting a severe case of the flu, or dying from complications stemming from the disease.
Who’s most at risk?
The young, the elderly and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, plus those with severe asthma and heart diseases, are most at risk of the serious side to influenza.
Professor Booy said while these groups are highly advised to get the vaccination, it’s also healthy Australians who can help to protect the more vulnerable.
He said most healthy Australians would live with or come into contact with someone in these vulnerable categories, so it was important for them to also get vaccinated to contribute to a “herd immunity”.
University of Queensland influenza virologist Dr Kirsty Short said Australians who were obese, and/or had diabetes were a growing at-risk sector of the community.
“In the 2009 so-called ‘swine flu’ epidemic, what we saw was that both obesity and diabetes for the first time emerged as susceptibility factors for severe influenza,” Dr Short said.
“(They) were significantly more likely to be hospitalised with the flu, they were significantly more likely to be admitted to the ICU and were significantly more likely to die from the virus.”
She said obese people were also likely to have the disease for longer, increasing the possibility of transmitting it to others.
And to compound their vulnerability, it has been shown the vaccination was less effective on obese people.
Dr Elizabeth McCarthy from the University of Melbourne dispelled the myths about the risks pregnant women face from vaccination, saying it was safer for women and their unborn children to get the flu shot.
The best time to act is now
“If you get vaccinated in the month of May, you can deal with the flu that’s already around … (it) will protect you and protect you for about four months to cover the winter flu season,” Professor Booy said.
University of New South Wales senior virologist Professor William Rawlinson said Australians could also take basic measures to prevent contracting or spreading the flu.
“Don’t forget simple measures, like washing your hands, coughing into your elbow and using tissues – and there are anti-virals which are available,” Professor Rawlinson said.
“Finally, it’s important to know what you’re dealing with. If you think you have the flu, talk to your GP about diagnosis.”
This year, states have made the flu shot freely available to at-risk Australia. Those eligible are:
- People 65 years and over
- Pregnant women
- People with chronic conditions
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from six months of age.