Flu numbers may rise as COVID-19 restrictions ease

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  Last updated July 27, 2020 at 11:12 am


COVID restrictions and increased hygiene have also slashed flu cases this year, but experts need to say we need to ensure we don’t let it bounce back when restrictions ease.

man with flu sneezing

Why This Matters: When COVID restrictions ease we need to avoid a rise in flu.

Social distancing and the hygiene measures to restrict coronavirus infections have cut the number of influenza cases in Australia dramatically. But experts have warned that the relaxing of restrictions could see the benefits short-lived.

“This time last year we had 53,000 cases of influenza, this year we have just 250 for June and there will be a proportional drop in deaths,” says Dr Rod Pearce, a GP and Chairman of the Immunisation Coalition.

“Instead of 10,000 – 15,000 deaths from influenza, it would be in the hundreds.”

Pearce runs a COVID-19 clinic in Adelaide and said that as well as testing for coronavirus, they also test for a range of other respiratory illnesses such as flu. So far this season, he said, 1,000 flu tests have revealed just a single case.

“That is how rare influenza this year is.”

Social distancing and increased hygiene see drop in flu cases

In any other year, Pearce says of those presenting with flu-like symptoms, he would normally see 60 – 70 per cent of patients testing positive for influenza.

But he also warns that if people stop hand washing, wearing masks and social distancing, the rates of influenza and other winter viruses will start to rise.

“We call it the canary in the coalmine effect, that we’ll see other infections increasing and if there’s coronavirus around we’ll see that increasing as well.”

According to Pearce the figures are just starting to show a slight uptick in flu as people come out of isolation.

“It would be nice if everyone followed the same hygiene and we could end up with a season with only half the size of a routine one.”

Also: Which mask works best? We filmed people coughing and sneezing to find out

While Professor Marylouise McLaws from UNSW encourages everyone to get vaccinated against flu, she also thinks the experience of COVID-19 may also see a cultural shift towards mask-wearing as a way to prevent other respiratory illnesses spreading.

“Maybe we will turn into more mask-wearers during the cough and cold season,” she says.

Winter is also a time when respiratory viruses traditionally peak in Australia, but the experts said the jury is still out on the impact winter temperatures will have on this coronavirus.

“It is really more about behaviour than temperature at the moment.”

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About the Author

Lyndal Byford
Lyndal is the Director of News and Partnerships at the Australian Science Media Centre. She spends her days turning complex science papers into tasty morsels to help news journalists cover science. Lyndal has an Honours Degree in Biotechnology from Flinders University and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication from the Australian National University. She has spent the last 20 years communicating science in a range of settings including science museums, within the pharmaceutical industry and in media relations both here and in the UK. Lyndal regularly speaks about science on ABC Radio National and 2CC in Canberra. Lyndal was also a member of Inspiring Australia’s Science and the Media Expert working group for the Federal Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research.

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