Flu Infections Are Way Down Everywhere Because Of Pandemic Precautions

Given the way 2020 has gone so far, public health officials weren't entirely sure what to expect for the year's flu season. The ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic has strained healthcare systems around the world so the last thing they need is another wave of illness to handle.

And in previous years, influenza has indeed caused significant issues. In the U.S., the 2019-20 flu season, for example, resulted in as many as 740,000 hospitalizations and up to 62,000 deaths, according to the CDC.

The 2020-21 flu season should have started in October but of course, 2020 is not just any other year.

Unsplash | David Mao

By this time of year, most of us would have had a case of the sniffles by now but the COVID-19 pandemic has required us to do things like increase vigilance with hand washing, wear face masks in public areas, and keep our distance from others. Those measures don't just stop the coronavirus from spreading, however; they also stop plenty of other illnesses, including flu.

What the upcoming season holds in store for us might be indicated by how it went for the Southern Hemisphere — where the flu season runs during their winter — from about April to September.

The Southern Hemisphere in general didn't have much of a flu season at all in 2020.

Unsplash | Christopher Burns

In New Zealand, flu cases were down 98% compared to the previous year. Australia reported just 107 confirmed flu cases in August 2020, compared to 61,000 in 2019, CNN reported. Deaths were down as well, as you would expect — while Australia saw about 800 flu deaths in 2019, just 36 died of influenza in 2020.

"They almost, as they call it, had an absent flu season," National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci told WTOP, according to CNN. "The theory is that all the precautions they took to contain the pandemic actually averted a flu season."

A similar story played out in other nations, not just in Australia and New Zealand.

Unsplash | Tim Johnson

South Africa was poised for a rough flu season, considering that COVID-19 arrived there in March, just as flu season was about to start there. In an average year, the country reports about 11,000 flu deaths. Three labs will screen 4,000 people at random and record about 1,000 cases, suggesting that about a quarter of the population will have the flu in a typical year. This year, those labs recorded a single case. Just one.

South Africa's public health experts credited the COVID-19 precautions, including school and border closures and travel restrictions, with stopping the flu's spread.

"It's really a natural experiment that shows us if we all wore masks and if we all do these measures, we might, in fact, be able to reduce the flu dramatically," Dr. Cheryl Cohen, co-head of the NICD's Centre for Respiratory Disease and Meningitis, told CBS News.

Another indicator of how the U.S.'s flu season might go can be seen to the north.

Unsplash | Priscilla Du Preez

By early November, Canada would typically have reported about 700 confirmed cases of flu, but in 2020, they've only seen 17 lab-confirmed cases so far, according to Global News.

A lack of testing can't be blamed for those low numbers, either, as the nation has carried out more than 10,000 flu tests so far — in an average year, that would be more like 4,500.

However, public health experts are cautioning that complacency won't help anything.

Unsplash | Hyttalo Souza

Despite the flu numbers being down elsewhere, they stayed low because people took the advice of officials and stuck with it — and got their flu shots.

"If you look at the data over many years about flu vaccines, they're not perfect," Dr. Fauci said. "We know from the data that flu shots not only prevent infections; they prevent people who do get infected from getting serious progressive disease sometimes resulting in hospitalization."

The CDC estimates that in 2018-19, flu shots prevented 4.4 million influenza illnesses, 2.3 million influenza-associated medical visits, 58,000 influenza-associated hospitalizations, and 3,500 influenza-associated deaths. And so with COVID-19 threatening to overrun healthcare systems around the U.S., flu shots will be more critical this year than ever, despite the other precautions already in place.

h/t: CNN, CBS News, Global News

Filed Under: