Australia had a few almost flu-free yearsbut the disease has come back — and then some — in the past month.
just shy 10,600 cases of flu were reported to the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System in the first third of this year, with more than 7,000 of those diagnosed in the two weeks between April 25 and May 8.
That’s compared to just 598 reported flu cases in all of 2021, thanks in large part to closed borders and COVID restrictions.
Now, if Australians go into winter with little natural immunityand address the potential risk of co-infection with COVID-19, experts say getting the flu vaccine is more important than ever†
“We have about 600,000 children under the age of two who have never seen the flu, so that’s a pretty sizable population of young children who are completely susceptible,” Sheena Sullivan, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Doherty Institute, told ABC News. †
“And then for our older populations … we don’t know exactly how often people get infected, but normally there would be a higher level of protection in the community than there is now.”
Sydney pediatrician Nick Wood said hospitals were already seeing more flu cases in young children, who – in addition to older adults, pregnant people and… adults with chronic health problems — are at higher risk of complications if they are infected.
“In the pediatric space, there are certainly more hospitalizations under the age of 5 than we saw with COVID-19,” said Dr. Wood, who is also an associate director at the National Center for Immunization Research and Surveillance (NCIRS).
Flu shot recording slow
Some 6 million Australians have already had their flu shot this yearbut that’s less than a quarter of the eligible population, said Ian Barr, deputy director of the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Center for Reference and Research on Influenza at the Doherty Institute.
“It’s low. Last year we had about 35 percent of eligible Australians vaccinated. So we’re actually below that at the moment.”
That being said, older Australians generally have much higher vaccination coverage against seasonal flu than their younger counterparts. (In 2019, only 15 percent of 20- to 50-year-olds got a flu shot.)
In Australia, everyone over 6 months of age is advised to be vaccinated against seasonal flu. Vaccination protects you from serious diseases and also helps protect those around you by reducing the risk of transmission.
dr. Wood suspected that “vaccine fatigue” may contribute to the lagging absorption rate in some age groups.
The rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, especially boosters in the past six months, may also have caused some people to postpone their flu shot, said Dr. Sullivan.
“There was a bit of confusion about whether you can get the flu vaccine at the same time, and that meant the vaccination uptake was slightly lower.”
(You can now use your COVID-19 booster and flu shot at the same time†
Flu vaccine ‘excellent match’ so far
While vaccination is the best way to protect yourself from the flu, flu vaccines provide better protection in some years than others.
That’s because the viruses that cause the flu can quickly mutate and slip past our immune defenses — as well as some of the protection afforded by vaccines.
To stay one step ahead, the World Health Organization (WHO) monitors which viruses are circulating where and uses this to predict what will be in our next seasonal flu vaccine each September.
So how did they go this year?
According to Professor Barr, things are looking pretty good at the moment.
“How that actually plays out in terms of vaccine effectiveness is too early to say, but in terms of looking at the viruses circulating and the match in the vaccine, they’re an excellent match at this stage.”
Of the four flu viruses covered by the vaccine, two are influenza A viruses and two are influenza B.
Influenza B viruses generally only infect humans, while influenza A viruses — such as H1N1 or swine flu — can bounce between us and other animals.
This year, influenza A viruses accounted for the lion’s share of lab-confirmed cases, Professor Barr said, “It’s about 75 percent H3N2 and 25 percent H1N1.”
Although very little B virus circulates — just 0.2 percent of lab-confirmed cases — the vaccine appears to be less effective against it, said University of Queensland virologist Ian Mackay.
“That’s one to keep an eye on because if it were to scale up or we’d have more cases of [travellers] introducing it to Australia…it could cause more disease.”
More potent vaccines for older Australians
How well the flu vaccine works also depends on your age and overall health.
The NCIRS estimates that the flu shot can affect about 50-60 percent of young children and healthy adults under the age of 65, although this figure varies from year to year.
But older people and those with compromised immune systems may not respond as well to vaccination, meaning they may be less protected.
That’s why Australians over 65 are recommended one of two improved flu shots, specifically designed to boost their immune system’s response to the vaccine.
“They have an adjuvant [in the vaccine] or a higher dose vaccine, basically because the immune system just needs more immune boost,” said Dr. Wood.
“For younger kids, their immune systems are a little more robust…it’s the same thing we saw with COVID vaccines.”
How bad is this year’s flu?
While the flu can be a mild illness – leading to a few days of work disability with fever, aches and pains – it can also cause a very serious illness, and should not be confused with a cold†
“I think people are getting a little complacent about the flu,” Dr Mackay said.
“But we saw very big flu years in 2017 and in 2019 with many people in hospital. We saw deaths, ICU visits and a lot of free time.”
According to this year’s annual statement FluTracking Datalevels of respiratory disease are “moderate and increasing sharply, especially in children 17 years and younger.”
Officially reported figures suggest flu puts about 5,100 people in hospital and kills 100 in Australia each yearbut it is generally believed that these figures underrepresent the true burden of the disease.
A 2008 mathematical modeling study suggests that the flu is likely responsible for: more than 3,000 deaths and 13,500 hospitalizations per yearand that’s only in people over 50.
It’s never too late to get vaccinated
The NCIRS recommends that eligible Australians get their flu shot around April or May, when the flu season kicks in.
As with some vaccines, the effectiveness of a flu shot decreases over time, but an April/May vaccine should still provide good protection when the flu season peaks in August or September.
If you still have to get your flu shot this year, it’s not too late, but try to get it as soon as possible so you can get some protection, according to the NCIRS.
As long as they are available to give, flu shots will be offered throughout the flu season.
And if you’ve already had the flu? You should still get your chance.
It helps reduce your risk of getting sick from other strains of the flu virus that are doing the rounds.
Other ways to reduce the risk of the flu — and other illnesses — should be pretty well known by now: social distancing, wearing a face mask around other people, washing your hands, and staying home.
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