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Get ready for flu season – it might be here sooner than we think

You might have noticed a recent spike in sore throats, bronchial infections and bugs – a spate of sickness that has kept people away from work for more than a couple of days at a time.

This has certainly been the case at The New Daily in the past couple of months.

This prompted an unscientific survey of friends and family that confirmed the trend – an unusually high number of people were hit with cold-like symptoms and fatigue over the summer.

Many wondered if this is a hangover from COVID-19.

Instead, it might well have been an early dose of the flu.

The unpredictability of flu season

Australia recorded a mini-spike of laboratory-confirmed flu cases in January and February.

This amounted to nearly 8500 cases reported to the National Notifiable Disease Surveillance System. The actual number of flu infections would have been significantly higher because most people don’t get lab tested.

This spike was probably driven by people returning from holidays abroad, or by oversea students arriving to start the academic year.

In the same period last year, there were only 79 reported cases.

This followed two years of COVID-19 lockdowns. The was little flu in the wider Australian community – and then it returned with a vengeance.

Last year’s season peaked early, in June, with more than 110,000 reported cases.

That was 40,000 higher than 2019’s peak – 2019 being the season immediately before COVID took over our lives.

What does this tell us?

Professor Ian Barr is deputy director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza at the Doherty Institute.

In an article published this month, Professor Barr cautioned against “speculating on the intensity of influenza seasons in advance”.

“Influenza seasons vary considerably from one season to another,” he said.

Hence, “one cannot draw too much confidence by simply observing what happened in the previous season”.

This doesn’t stop scientists and GPs from wondering what we’re in for.

And the overall message is: Get vaccinated sooner rather than later.

An early season?

Professor Adrian Esterman is professor of biostatistics at the University of South Australia.

“If 2023 follows the same pattern as 2019, then the peak would be in July. However, in the North America, the flu season has been very early, which means that there is a high likelihood we will have an early season here,” he told TND.

He said that confirmed cases “are already well up on last year” – noting that those infections “are just the tip of the iceberg”.

He said most people don’t visit their doctor “if they think they have flu, or if they do, the GP might not take a swab”.

His advice? “Ideally, we would have all flu vax (influenza vaccines) available now. However, vaccine funded through the National Immunisation Program is unlikely to be available until April.”

The federal Department of Health confirms this is the case.

There may be a few peaks

Deakin University epidemiology chair Professor Catherine Bennett said it was “hard to predict flu at the moment as so much depends on people’s travel and background immunity levels, both of which have been disrupted”.

She pointed to “a big H3N2 (an influenza strain) outbreak in India … over the last two months”.

“The traffic between our countries is likely to have sparked some early local transmission as well,” Professor Bennett said.

She said the 2022 season started early but didn’t follow a predictable pattern. The same “could happen this year, if we have a few peaks related to different strains being introduced at different times”.

This would also depend on how well the 2023 vaccine (which targets four strains) “matches the various strains that end up circulating here over winter”.

Bottom line? “The vaccine lasts for about six months. So being vaccinated early is playing it safe at no cost as it will cover the southern winter flu season anyway.”

How sick will it make us?

The short answer: No way of knowing for sure.

However, a January report from newsGP had some interesting observations. According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, “the US hospitalisation rate for influenza at this point in their season is four times higher than any season in the past decade”.

NewsGP said Germany had experienced a similar spike, with confirmed influenza cases increasing from 3000 to 56,000 a week in the past month.

In England there was an average of 344 patients a day in hospital with influenza in December – more than 10 times than last year’s numbers.

In that same article, Professor Ian Barr observed:

“It’s a numbers game and our coming season depends on the global situation.”

TND will report further on flu season as it makes itself known.

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