Australia’s current flu season is shaping up to be worse than any in recent years, health authorities announced Tuesday.
Forty thousand influenza cases have been reported nationwide, a figure nearly three times that of the usual rate in May, experts from Australia’s Immunization Coalition revealed. Hospitals and emergency departments have been warned to expect an escalation of patients, with 4,000 deaths due to flu complications predicted by the year’s end.
"I've been following influenza in Australia for 15 years, and I've never seen an early onset like this before,” Robert Booy, chairman of the Immunization Coalition, told reporters during an Australian Science Media Centre briefing. "It’s a shock. We weren't expecting it."
Booy claims the mild 2018 flu season could be responsible for this year’s unprecedented numbers.
"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 said. “The best explanation is that 2018 was so quiet that we have reduced community immunity, so there are more susceptible people catching infections and therefore transmitting infections.”
Almost 11 million Australians received the flu vaccination in 2018, up one-third from the previous year. The high vaccination rate meant 2018 recorded the lowest rates of influenza in five years, with 52,000 cases reported and 73 deaths.
By contrast, 2017 saw 250,000 flu cases and a record 1,255 influenza-associated deaths.
The flu is a serious illness, in 2017 more people died from complications of the infection than on our roads. This year could be worse.— SA Health (@SAHealth) May 7, 2019
Are you doing what you can to protect yourself and your loved ones against the flu? Find out more, visit https://t.co/1TSV9bOQTf. pic.twitter.com/w70XKJAQAW
South Australia has been worst hit so far this year.
The state’s latest health statistics reveal almost 11,000 flu cases as of May 4 — compared with 1,316 at the same time last year. In the last week alone, nearly 2,000 cases were reported.
South Australian Health Minister Stephen Wade announced an early distribution of free vaccines has started for Australia’s most vulnerable people. The health department has also increased the number of vaccinations sent to GP clinics following complaints of inadequate supplies by certain Adelaide doctors and pharmacists.
"We have begun distributing vaccines as soon as they have become available," Wade announced in a statement. "The State Government is again funding free flu shots for about 90,000 eligible children aged between six months and under five years to help protect vulnerable young children and minimize the spread of the flu.”
Both Wade and Booy have urged all Australians to protect themselves and work to drive down the infection rate by getting vaccinated at their local GP, pharmacy, or immunization provider.