COVID and flu together more than doubles death risk, say experts

After two years of pandemic, we’ve learnt that COVID is very much a ‘game’ of odds. Those odds relate to your chance of contracting the virus and if you do contract it, how much it will affect your health.

But now, as Australians head through autumn, there’s another factor at play – ‘regular’ flu. The latest available evidence suggests that those who contract influenza and COVID at the same time have more than double the chance of dying than if they had COVID alone.

The evidence was revealed in a new paper published by the medical journal, The Lancet. The paper examined clinical outcomes of co-infection with influenza viruses, respiratory syncytial virus, or adenoviruses in 212,466 adults with SARS-CoV-2 infection who were admitted to hospital in the UK between 6 February 2020 and 8 December 2021.

Read: Critical measure that will protect us from the next pandemic

What they found surprised even the authors themselves. Their results showed that individuals who had contracted both Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and influenza viruses were 2.4 times more likely to die than if they just had COVID.

In addition, they found that individuals who had contracted both were more than four times more likely to require ventilation support.

Liverpool University’s Calum Semple, one of the report’s co-authors, said: “We were surprised that the risk of death more than doubled when people were infected by both flu and COVID-19 viruses”.

Read: Australia avoids excess deaths during pandemic

The results prompted Professor Semple to issue a warning: “It is now very important that people get fully vaccinated and boosted against both viruses, and not leave it until it is too late.”

Prof. Semple’s directive was supported by co-author Professor Peter Openshaw, of Imperial College London. “The vaccines that protect against COVID-19 and flu are different, and people need both. The way that these two infections are treated is also different so it’s important to test for other viruses even when you have a diagnosis in someone who is hospitalised with a respiratory infection.”

Based on the results, the authors also recommended a change in strategy for hospitals admitting patients who have COVID. They recommend those patients should be tested for the flu virus on admission. Such testing “is important in hospital inpatients with COVID-19 to identify patients at risk and a cohort of patients who might have different responses to immunomodulatory and antiviral therapy”.

Read: ‘Flurona’ threatening to derail pandemic recovery

The push for vaccination against both COVID and influenza comes in the wake of another wave of rising positive cases throughout the world. In Australia, the seven-day average of new cases fell to around 22,000 per day in late February, but by the end of March that figure was beyond 56,000 and rising.

The latest variant of the disease, known as Omicron BA.2, is the driving force behind the increase. In the face of such a rise, experts say that the best chance we have of reducing the odds of contracting COVID, the flu or both, and minimising the risk if we do happen to fall victim to either, is to get vaccinated against both.

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Written by Andrew Gigacz

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