Australia on track for severe flu season

Southern hemisphere case numbers are rising sharply, doctors warn. Joseph Milton reports.

Influenza is far worse than just a bad cold. Vaccinations are recommended.

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With 40,000 confirmed influenza cases in Australia this early in the season, experts this week warned that deaths in the country could hit 4000 unless infection rates slow before the winter peak, and urged the public to get a flu vaccination

The number of confirmed cases is triple the typical levels seen at this part of the flu season. In 2018 there were 58,000 recorded cases for the entire year.

Robert Booy, who heads a collective of health organisations called the Immunisation Coalition, says that this flu season has been “really strange”.

2019 may be shaping up to be a particularly bad year for Australia because immunity levels are low following a mild season in 2018, Booy suggests.

He adds that the presence of two types of flu this year, rather than the usual one, is also likely to be a contributing factor.

"There has been a sustained and rising summer and autumn surge that began at the end of last year and is continuing to increase,” he warns.

Members of the community at the greatest risk of dying from flu complications include the young, the elderly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and people with severe asthma or heart diseases, experts say.

But healthy people should also get the jab, even if they don't fall into one of these categories, because they're likely to come into contact with people who are vulnerable.

High rates of vaccination are required to protect the community overall, with the hope of achieving "herd immunity", says Booy.

The University of Queensland's Kirsty Short warns that people who are obese or have diabetes are also more susceptible to severe flu, and are "significantly more likely to be hospitalised with the flu, significantly more likely to be admitted to the ICU and significantly more likely to die from the virus”.

Booy recommends getting vaccinated soon for the best chance of avoiding flu altogether.

“If you get vaccinated in the month of May, you can deal with the flu that’s already around [and] it will protect you for about four months to cover the winter flu season,” he explains.

Mums-to-be should also get the jab, according to the University of Melbourne's Elizabeth McCarthy, who said it's a safer strategy for women and their unborn children than avoiding it.

William Rawlinson from the University of New South Wales in Sydney offers some tips for avoiding infection.

“Don’t forget simple measures, like washing your hands, coughing into your elbow and using tissues – and there are anti-virals which are available,” he says.

“Finally, it’s important to know what you’re dealing with. If you think you have the flu, talk to your GP about diagnosis.”

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