For those who haven’t yet managed to get their annual flu jab, the time is now.
Health authorities report that last month was the worst on record for confirmed cases of influenza – six times higher than April 2017, which was the deadliest on record with 1137 deaths.
A total of 47,000 cases had been reported across Australia for the year to the end of April and 66 deaths recorded.
In Queensland, close to 10,000 cases have been reported and 25 deaths recorded – more than half the 43 deaths in the state for all of 2018.
In South Australia, 17 people have died from the flu, including 13 residents of aged care homes, with many facilities placed in lockdown.
In Western Australia, almost 500 cases of influenza were reported in April — more than three times the number recorded in April last year.
In Tasmania, there have been 801 reported cases this year, compared to 452 cases for the whole of 2018.
In Victoria, 10,931 cases have been reported compared to 2197 at the same time last year. Twenty-six people have died. Authorities report that there were no known deaths at the same time last year, and just one by late May in the horror 2017 flu season when 48,000 Victorians were diagnosed with influenza.
In NSW, 1668 cases were reported in the first two weeks of May.
A key factor, according to health authorities, is that the virus started spreading in summer.
Dr Angie Bone, deputy chief health officer of the Department of Health and Human Services, said she would not yet call the number of cases reported a crisis, suggesting the virus might taper off over winter or never reach the same peak as normal.
She said there had been no reports of vaccine shortages, with the most recent weekly flu report showing 1.53 million flu shots had been given out as at May 10, excluding those bought privately, such as in chemists or through workplace vaccination programs.
Professor Robert Booy, chair of the Immunisation Coalition, said that because Australia had had a quiet flu season last year, community immunity wasn’t built up to protect against this year’s virus.
“It means many more people will be prone to the flu this year and susceptible to getting it,” he said, adding that there had also been a long flu season in the northern hemisphere earlier in the year.
“Many Australians went to the US for holidays earlier in the year and brought the flu back, and in February school goes back and kids mix and spread the flu.”
He said most deaths would occur in people aged over 65, and usually as a result of complications such as pneumonia, heart attacks and stroke.
“This year, we expect the flu to kill at least 4000 people, which is the same number as deaths from suicide and the road toll combined,” he said.
“With the flu [rates] three times as high this year as last year, we can stop transmission now if people get vaccinated.
“Otherwise the numbers could rise even more.”
The flu season in Australia usually runs from June to September and peaks in August, and most GPs recommend that people get their vaccinations from mid-April in order to develop immunity.
“I encourage healthy people to get the flu shot as it protects you from getting and from spreading it to more vulnerable groups like the elderly,” Professor Booy said.
This year, the four strain or quadrivalent vaccine is available for people aged under 65 years old.
People aged over 65 will get an enhanced free vaccine with a component that boosts their immune system.
Have you had your flu jab? Have you noticed more people in your community with the illness?
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