Flu is always unpredictable. Infectious disease experts like to hedge their predictions carefully: When you see flu season, you’ve already seen flu season.
But when forecasters try to understand how the flu will affect North America in any given winter, they’ll look to countries like Australia and New Zealand, where flu season typically runs from April to October — the winter months in the southern hemisphere.
Australia has experienced its worst flu season in five years this year. According to the government’s official surveillance report, the peak in cases during that period was about three times higher than average and peaked two months earlier than normal.
The rate of flu-like illness in New Zealand this year is also higher than in the past two years.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Bloomberg News that the U.S. should take note.
“The flu season in the southern hemisphere is really bad and it’s coming early,” Fauci said. “The flu – as we’ve all experienced it for years – can be a serious illness, especially when your season is not good. »
He says it means the U.S. could see a resurgence of the flu And Covid-19 is still circulating at high levels.
Recent government modelling predicts that Covid-19 will peak again in early December.
If that happens, it would be the first winter the U.S. has had to deal with the two respiratory viruses circulating at high levels together, something infectious disease experts have warned about since the pandemic began.
When Americans began self-isolating, social distancing and wearing masks in early 2020 to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, the flu all but disappeared.
Dr. Jennifer Nayak, a paediatric infectious disease expert, said that while people have returned to normal habits and the flu has subsided, cases have not reached pre-pandemic levels, meaning most of us have not been exposed for several years. flu. Disease specialist at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
“In these consecutive mild flu seasons, I think population immunity may be lower than average flu season,” Nayak said.
Besides, most Children no longer wear masks at school.
“We know that children are a major source of flu infections. They are in school or Nursery, they bring it home,” Nayak said. Many adults also don’t wear masks or avoid crowded spaces, “so there may be an increase in flu transmission this year.”
All of this underscores the need for Americans to get vaccinated. But usually about half don’t. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 45 percent of Americans received the flu shot last season.Flu vaccination rates plummet for several at-risk people Crowds including pregnant women and children.
The U.S. government will launch a campaign this fall urging people to also get a flu shot and update Covid-19 reminders.
Nayak wondered how this public health message — urging people to get more vaccines to avoid more infections — might sound to Americans fed up with pandemics.
“I think we still need to see how that plays out with our flu vaccination rates,” she said.
All of this is still hypothetical. In about eight weeks, we won’t really know what winter has in store for us.
“I think we have to pay close attention to what’s happening in November — if we’re going to do something similar to Australia,” said Jeffrey Sharman, a modelling expert at Australia’s Mailman School of Public Health and Columbia University. “Are we starting to see the flu earlier than usual? It can take off. Of course, beyond that, we have to worry about how it will combine with Covid in circulation. »
Two co-circulating respiratory viruses could pose problems for hospitals, which are still strained and struggling.
It could also mean that people have contracted a viral disease, which could leave them vulnerable to ongoing health problems, serious illness and death.
“The flu didn’t become an afterthought,” Saman said. “Seasonal influenza has and will continue to impose a very heavy burden on society, and it’s a burden we want to control.”