Confronting warning for new threat looming this winter

·3-min read

Australia could be in for a devastating flu season due to low rates of herd immunity coupled with complacency, experts have warned.

Australia saw the lowest number of influenza cases on record in 2020, following a record-high number in 2019.

Back in March this year, the Australian Government Department of Health said behaviours we adopted amid the pandemic to stop the spread helped prevent the flu from spreading within the community last year.

"Relaxing social distancing restrictions this year may allow flu viruses to recirculate, even if they were hardly seen in 2020," the department warned.

A woman wearing a face mask shelters from the rain during wet weather at Circular Quay in Sydney, Sunday, July 26, 2020
Australia's flu season could be worse this year due to limited herd immunity. Source: AAP

Speaking to News Corp, Professor Terry Nolan, head of vaccine and immunisation research at the University of Melbourne, said it would be fair to expect more cases of influenza this year.

He explained Australia has seen somewhat of a "yo-yo effect" with flu numbers in recent years — when numbers are down one year, they go up the following.

“It’s logical that with fewer people infected last year, there is less herd protection going forward," he told News Corp.

“It’s possible that the recent pattern could continue, and we may see a rebound flu season in 2021.”

According to the Department of Health, influenza-like-illness levels remain low domestically, however, Australia's normal flu season runs from June until September or October.

High immunisation rates, as well as mask-wearing and physical distancing due to COVID-19, helped stop the spread of flu last year, Chris Moy from the Australian Medical Association previously told AAP.

"The same things that reduce COVID reduce the flu as well," he said.

'Best defence' against the flu

"It's easy for people to cast their minds to the Covid vaccine and forget about the flu vaccine, but it's so important to get yourself protected," pharmacist Anthony Tassone recently told 9News.

The government says the best defence against the flu is a vaccine.

The National Immunisation Program offers free influenza shots to select groups.

The groups which are eligible to get a free flu shot are:

  • children aged 6 months to less than 5 years

  • all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 6 months and over

  • people aged 6 months and over with certain medical conditions that increase their chance of severe influenza and its complications

  • pregnant women (at any stage during pregnancy)

  • people aged 65 years and over.

"If you are not eligible for a free flu vaccine, you can purchase the vaccine from your GP, a pharmacy, or another immunisation provider," the government says.

Victoria's Deputy Chief Health Officer Allan Cheng and Nurse Karen Lasky (right) administering the vaccine against Covid-19 at Alfred Hospital, Melbourne, Friday, March 5, 2021
People are encouraged to get both the flu vaccine and the Covid-19 vaccine. Source: AAP

The government also says vaccination experts recommend waiting 14 days between getting the flu vaccine and the Covid-19 vaccine.

While it doesn't matter which order you get the vaccines, it is suggested you get it according to when you are eligible for the Covid vaccine.

If you are one of the groups in the early phase of the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, opt for that vaccine as soon as you can, then plan to get your flu vaccine.

For those groups in the later phase, get the flu vaccine first and then get the Covid vaccine when you are able to.

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