March cases in Australia jump up

Australia’s dramatic two-year drop in influenza cases has come to an abrupt halt, with flu numbers in March likely to equal the entire 2021 caseload.

March saw a “big jump” in influenza cases, particularly in New South Wales and Victoria, said Professor Ian Barr, the Deputy Director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza.

“I think influenza is definitely back,” he told 9News.com.au, while warning “it’s certainly not the only respiratory virus circulating around” the community at the moment.

An Australian lab scientist holds a strain of the influenza virus. (The Age)

“Cases are coming in and respiratory viruses will spread around.”

According to the National Notifiable Disease Surveillance System (NNDSS), there were 409 lab-confirmed cases of the flu in March, compared with 598 cases all last year.

“These numbers will be under-estimates as only a small percentage of people have lab testing done,” Professor Barr said.

Influenza all but disappeared between 2020-21, during the worst of the coronavirus pandemic.

In the 2020 flu season, NNDSS recorded 21,266 influenza cases, a remarkable drop from 313,033 the year before.

There were 906 deaths from the flu in 2019, compared to just 36 in 2020.

With increased mobility, influenza strains circulating in the Northern Hemisphere and outbreaks closer to home in Fiji, New Caledonia and Timo-Leste had begun to enter Australia, Professor Barr said.

People were naturally also becoming more relaxed with social distancing, hand washing and mask wearing, he added, but those routines were very much “secondary causes”.

During peak pandemic quarantine, employees worked remotely, travel opportunities were significantly limited and kids were homeschooling.

The return of kids to school is fertile ground for rhinoviruses, the major cause of the common cold, especially in children.

There are more than one hundred strains of rhinoviruses and dozens are known to circulate around a community at any one time.

“For sure, all respiratory viruses have a field day when restrictions are lifted,” Professor Barr said.

Experts are concerned Australians are downplaying the prospect of a serious influenza season in 2022, which is expected to peak in August.

The influenza virus as seen under a microscope.
The influenza virus as seen under a microscope. (Centres for Disease Control)

Leading infectious disease expert Professor Robert Booy said the reawakening of influenza might be “quite troublesome”, after its near-disappearance.

“For the last two years, we’ve had next to no flu, and vaccination rates have been low as well. As a consequence, the level of community protection has dropped significantly.”

A recent survey by Australian vaccine manufacturer Seqirus showed less than half of Australian adults think influenza is a very serious condition that can lead to death in vulnerable people.

Three in 10 respondents said they do not intend to get vaccinated against the flu while another 11 per cent are undecided.

Professor Booy said he was “concerned” about some of the survey results.

Reference-www.9news.com.au

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