woman with flu

It seems everyone is sick this winter — and more sick than ever before. That’s the anecdotal information you’ve probably gleaned from a glance across your empty office or a quick scan of the news.

Recently, an otherwise healthy 13-year old Melbourne girl passed away just days after contracting the flu; a toddler in Western Australia fell victim to a suspected influenza virus too. In the media, it’s being deemed as one of the deadliest flu seasons yet. “Horror flu season,” the headlines scream. “Worse on the way.” “Fears the flu vaccine could be ineffective.”

How solid are these claims, and exactly how much hand sanitiser should you be using? Crikey did some digging and spoke to the experts. 

Is this the ‘deadliest’ season? 

Influenza deaths are higher for this time of year than in previous years. The simple comparison of these figures is how most headlines have been born. 

From the start of this year until July 10, there have been 306 influenza-associated deaths around the country and 138,322 laboratory-confirmed cases. During the same period last year, there were just 40 deaths (compared to a five-year average of 51). It’s also worth noting that lab numbers only represent those who got tested — actual fatalities are likely to be higher. 

Flu rates in Australia (Source: National Notifiable Disease Surveillance System)

Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy told Crikey one of the reasons this years’ fatalities are so high is because the flu season started earlier than usual. “After a very low season last year, we had an unusual number of cases in the inter-seasonal (summer) period. This activity has persisted into one of the earliest influenza seasons we have seen in recent memory,” he said.

“Importantly there is no evidence to date that the mortality rate from influenza is any higher this year than in previous years.” 

The Department of Health reports that deaths have, in fact, been low across the country. The number of confirmed cases are high, but not unusually so for a season average, with seasons usually running from August to October.   

While Murphy conceded we do not know whether this flu season will drag on or finish early, data shows notifications of laboratory-confirmed influenza have plateaued, while hospitalisations are on the decline. 

Is the vaccine useless? 

Let’s take a step back, and look at how we get vaccines in the first place. Influenza vaccines inoculate against strains A and B of the seasonal viruses. The World Health Organisation makes recommendations on which strains to develop a vaccine for by continuously monitoring the virus worldwide, and the organisation releases recommendations for the southern hemisphere in September. 

The Australian Influenza Vaccine Committee (AIVC) then reviews the recommendations. This year a vaccine was developed to protect against two A-strains (H1N1 and H3N2) and two B-strains (Colorado and Phuket). More than 6 million doses have been secured.  

One of the A virus strains — H3N2 — has mutated. It’s the second most common flu strain in Australia this year and causes more harm among the elderly. But mutations are not only normal but expected. The same scare erupted in 2017

“Influenza viruses mutate and evolve continuously in nature. The effectiveness of the influenza vaccine varies from season to season due a range of factors including: the age group predominantly affected, and the match between the vaccine and circulating influenza viruses,” Murphy said.

“We will not know how effective the vaccine has been against any of the influenza strains until the end of the influenza season.” 

In general, people vaccinated against the flu are 30-60% less likely to head to the hospital or doctor than an unvaccinated person. And, despite the mutation, the 2019 vaccine is performing as effectively as expected

“Vaccination remains the most effective protection against influenza and we know that the vaccines available are effective each year against the majority of the circulating influenza strains.”

How accurate has reporting been? 

High-profile cases of deaths in fit young people have led to a spur in reporting on the severity of the season. But, reporting has always focused on the conditional — it could be the deadliest season, it could claim thousands of lives. 

This is not completely untrue, but it’s also unlikely. Cases of influenza are above average levels, but the season started early. Deaths are higher than last year (for this time of year), but are still considered low. It’s true that the strain mutated, but this is a normal trait of the virus which happens every year. 

“It is understandable that the media gives prominence to the very rare but tragic deaths in otherwise fit young people,” Murphy said. “I do have concerns when reporting on vaccine efficacy is unbalanced and could potentially undermine confidence in the vaccine. We will always seek to redress such imbalance.” 

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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