Australia is nearing the end of its worst flu season in at least five years, which could be a sign of what’s to come in the United States as fall and winter approaches.
According to data from Australia’s Department of Health and Aged Care, as of August 28, nearly 218,000 laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza have been reported to the country’s national notifiable disease surveillance system.
The season started earlier than usual, and at its peak in June, more than 30,000 cases were reported to NNDDS per week, according to the latest surveillance report. By comparison, at the height of the season in 2017, 25,000 cases were reported each week.
Additionally, there have been 1,708 flu-related hospitalizations – 6.5 per cent of which have been admitted to intensive care units – and 288 virus-associated deaths in Australia so far this season.
Meanwhile, there was only one flu-related hospitalization and no deaths last year, according to health department data.
Researchers and modelers often look to the Southern Hemisphere, which first experiences its flu season — usually May through October — to predict what the season will look like in the United States, and experts tell ABC News that we we should take Australia’s warning.
“We often look to Australia and the Southern Hemisphere as a signal of what we can expect,” said Boston Children’s Hospital epidemiologist and ABC News contributor Dr. John Brownstein. “Obviously it’s not a perfect 1-on-1 game but more often than not the severity of the flu season in Australia is a good correlate of what we might expect, and that helps us to prepare ourselves.”
In the past two years, fewer cases have been reported in the United States compared to previous years due to the COVID-19 mitigation measures in place, such as mask wearing and social distancing, as well as school and business closures.
A Wayne State University study of Detroit Medical Center found that there were no positive influenza A or B tests in adults or children during the 2020-21 flu season. However, during the 2019-20 flu season, 13% of adult tests and 20% of child tests were positive for the virus.
Another study looking at Akron Children’s Hospital in Ohio found no cases of influenza A and only two cases of influenza B were detected during the 2020-21 season – a 99% decrease from compared to the previous season.
But with COVID-19 expected to peak again in December 2022 or January 2023 and with less flu immunity among the population and fewer mitigation measures, this could be the first time Americans have had to battle two viruses. at the same time, which could put additional strain on hospital systems.
“Given the concerns we have about healthcare capacity and healthcare burnout, the last thing we want is to have parallel outbreaks at a time when our healthcare systems are under strain. ordeal,” Brownstein said.
Health experts said they strongly recommend that Americans get their flu shot by the end of October for the best protection, but say it’s never too late, even if people are vaccinate later in the season.
“One of the potential things that could bring the flu back with a vengeance is low immunity,” Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, told ABC News. “It’s definitely important now more than ever because there’s potential for a bad flu season and a bad COVID season.”
She added: “Actually, [Tufts was] still needing [flu vaccination] of any new employees or suppliers until June 1, because the last flu season lasted so long that it is never too late. »
Experts also add that the flu can lead to serious illness and death, so it is important to reduce the risk of infection as much as possible.
“While COVID has been in the headlines for years, we must remember that influenza is a serious infection and most of those who catch influenza recover, we must recognize that influenza causes tens of thousands of deaths. hospitalizations and thousands of deaths,” Brownstein said. . “A portion of influenza infections could lead to severe illness and death. Just as we try to mitigate the risk of COVID infection, we must try to provide a similar effort against influenza infection.”
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