Flu season is right around the corner and public health officials are concerned. They fear that influenza infections on top of COVID-19 could be a deadly combination. That’s why they are urging people to get their flu shots now. With adequate immunization, we might be able to avoid a bad flu season.
Last Year Was Not a Bad Flu Season:
Unlike almost everything else in 2020, the year’s influenza infections were surprisingly light. In August of 2019, Australian laboratories had verified more than 60,000 cases of influenza. By August of 2020, however, there were just barely more than 100. South Africa would normally have 1000 laboratory-confirmed cases during their winter but in 2020, they had just one.
Of course, not all cases of influenza are laboratory confirmed, but the difference is dramatic. Public health officials attribute this to steps taken to reduce coronavirus transmission: wearing masks, staying home, maintaining distance and washing hands. The Southern Hemisphere was not the only place to escape a bad flu season last year. In North America, too, the 2020-21 flu season was exceptionally light.
Why Public Health Officials Worry:
Because there were few influenza infections last year, public health authorities are concerned that people may have little antibody protection this year. Outbreaks of flu have begun on college campuses. Most worrisome, the CDC notes that many of the cases seem to be influenza A H3N2. This strain of influenza is more likely than others to cause serious illness, hospitalizations and death among older adults.
What We Must Do:
Americans have been less rigorous than people in some other countries about face masks and staying home. In summary, we will still need to get our flu shots and practice all possible preventive measures to avoid BOTH influenza and COVID-19. The CDC urges people to get their flu vaccinations now, along with maintaining everyday precautions like staying home when ill, washing hands frequently and covering coughs and sneezes effectively. Otherwise, it could be a very bad flu season indeed.
In 2019, the pattern of infection was atypical. The season started early, with the less debilitating influenza B dominating. Before flu season finished, however, all eyes were on COVID-19 as it spread around the world. Telling the difference between these two diseases can be difficult, but when a person has both at the same time, they may become extremely ill (European Journal of Case Reports in Internal Medicine, April 20, 2020). While COVID-19 vaccines are more effective than flu shots, it still makes sense to maximize protection. In addition, using simple physical measures like extra-careful hand washing should help protect us against both infections.