The World Health Organisation this week talked about the difference between the spreading novel coronavirus and influenza – at a time when Australia is about to move into flu season.
It was a big picture message: seasonal flu cannot be stopped, while it’s possible that COVID-19 can be contained by isolating infected people, following those who come in contact with cases to see whether they develop illness, and suspending activities that bring together lots of people.
But the smaller picture – the actions of individuals – also count.
An issue that will increasingly concern Australians is knowing if they have one virus instead of the other. It can be confusing, and therefore worrying, because they share similar symptoms. There are some important differences to keep in mind, but on the face of it, one virus can just as easily appear to be the other.
One thing that will help Australians – and the country at large – is getting vaccinated against flu. An outbreak of serious flu cases and COVID-19 would simply overwhelm our hospitals and medical centres.
The 2020 flu vaccine is starting to arrive at medical centres. Vaccinating from April provides protection before the peak season, June to September.
If you get vaccinated and then later develop the following symptoms, you need to get checked out for the coronavirus.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), common symptoms of coronavirus infection include:
- Shortness of breath
- Breathing difficulties
In severe cases, symptoms become more advanced:
- Severe acute respiratory syndrome
- Kidney failure pneumonia
Some complicating factors: About 5 per cent of people with COVID-19 report a sore throat and runny nose, while a small percentage also report diarrhoea and vomiting.
The best thing is to avoid getting the coronavirus in the first place, and to minimise the risk of spreading, it by practicing good hygiene: wash your hands regularly, cough into your elbow, and stay home, away from others, if you are unwell.
If you think you might have the coronavirus or flu – and you probably won’t know for sure – do not attend a medical centre without calling ahead and speaking to a nurse first, as you may risk spreading it further.
However, if you have breathing difficulties, call an ambulance.
Influenza has been widely researched and most Australians are probably already familiar with its symptoms. However, according to WHO, they can include:
- Fever (often with abrupt onset)
- Sore throat
- Muscle pain
Older people, young children and people with certain chronic conditions – such as asthma, heart disease and diabetes – are at increased risk for serious complications, including pneumonia.
While COVID-19 distinguishes itself with breathing difficulties or shortness of breath, these too are the more severe symptoms of flu, especially in people prone to respiratory conditions.
Cases of flu and COVID-19 have already been confused
Professor Ian Barr is Deputy-Director of the WHO Influenza Centre for Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza at the Doherty Institute.
Professor Barr told The New Daily that because victims of either virus can display respiratory difficulties, a diagnosis based purely on symptoms can easily be wrong.
“A lot of the early cases which were queried to be coronavirus ended up as influenza B from Chinese visitors,” he said. “So they are very similar. The only way you can be sure would be a diagnostic test.”
Professor Barr said Australia had sufficient capacity for diagnostic testing.
“And will be increasing. The non-specialist labs will have that test rolled out before winter arrives. So that won’t be an issue.
“The other factor is, there is no specific treatment for corona virus, so even if you were diagnosed, apart from quarantining yourself, there’s not a lot you can do unless you have severe symptoms.”
Will the influenza complicate the coronavirus situation?
Professor Barr noted that Australia has had severe flu seasons in two out of the last three years.
“We’re hoping for a quieter season tis year, but time will tell. Best guess, I would say it will be a low to moderate year,” he said.
He said if there are a small number of COVID-19 cases, “then it will be business as usual. If there are a larger number, that will lead to increased testing and complicate the way we do things in the lab. We just have to wait and see.
“People have to go somewhere, and if there were large outbreaks – and I’m not saying there will be – then hospitals would be overwhelmed pretty quickly.”
The Department of Health, on its website, says that new age-specific vaccines will be available under the National Immunisation Program in 2020 for eligible people, due to their increased risk of complications from influenza:
- All people aged six months to less than five years (newly eligible in 2020).
- All Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged six months and over.
- Pregnant women, during any stage of pregnancy.
- All people aged 65 years and over.
- People aged six months and over with medical conditions which increase the risk of influenza disease complications.