Our influenza vaccination clinics have gone nuts. At a recent one we administered over 70 flu shots to young and old, to sick and healthy alike. Not surprisingly, stocks are low, but still the people flock in. Demand has been unprecedented (sorry, promise I’ll never use that word again).
Last year people were told to wait until later in the season before being vaccinated. The flu season often peaks around August/September, and we know that immunity from the vaccine can fade after a few months. So vaccinating in, say, April, risked leaving people vulnerable four to five months later.
This year the advice has been different — we’ve been telling people to get in early. COVID-19 is bad enough. COVID 19 plus flu could be much worse. Hence the flocks
Call me sheepish, but I have a nasty feeling we may have got this one all wrong.
We are currently using extreme social distancing measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19. It seems to be working, with the curve bending or flattening or anyway doing something more desirable than shooting straight up. And this is with a virus that is already here, and is more infectious than the flu.
If social distancing works for something as easily spread as COVID-19, it is going to be even more effective with a less infectious agent like the flu virus. This was shown in the 1918 flu epidemic, when one of the most effective measures that reduced the spread of flu was social distancing.
There are already indications this is happening. January and February had higher numbers of flu cases than average years, but the curve is showing early signs of flattening and even dropping.
In other words, the societal measures we are taking for COVID-19 are at least as effective at reducing the flu risk. Yet we are vaccinating the hordes at a time that, I now believe, may be the least necessary.
My worst-case scenario? September arrives, COVID-19 is relatively contained and social distancing measures start being relaxed. The flu virus emerges, immunity from vaccination five months previously has waned and we now have a flu crisis.
COVID-19 has so far killed under 100 Australians. In the nasty flu outbreak of 2017, 1255 died.
As the photo below shows, the other day I bravely went for my flu shot. I’m beginning to wish I’d waited.
One possible solution would be a booster round of flu shots in a few months’ time, but is the government really going to fund this? I suspect not, even if we could persuade people to roll up their sleeves a second time around.
So amidst the hysteria of patients wanting flu vaccination ASAP, I’m considering advising them to hasten slowly. Social distancing is helping keep them safe now, vaccination will help keep them safer later.
Nick Carr is a Melbourne-based GP, author and broadcaster.