Influenza cases at record-breaking high


Queensland influenza totals from 2013 to 2019

Australia is experiencing its largest surge in confirmed influenza cases with the month of May showing an almost 20 percent spike on 2014 and a 14.5 per cent increase on last year’s total.

Research conducted by the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System (NNDSS) shows that as of June 3, the national total is climbing, with 69,380 people identified with the disease trumping the 2018 annual figure by over 10,000 cases.

The NNDSS also reports that Australia-wide the death toll is already at 119 influenza-related, 80 percent of these being due to Influenza A, with an average age of 86.

Queensland alone has a reported 12,773 diagnoses to date, a 22.5 per cent rise on the 543 cases recorded in May 2018.

University of  the Sunshine Coast (USC) Clinical Trials Principal Investigator Dr Susan Thackwray said there were lots of different factors impacting the rise in flu notifications this year.

“The flu vaccine’s immunity can sometimes only last as long as four months, and if you have a longer flu season then your immunity in the community may drop, that can be a problem, they may need a booster and patients are not always aware of this,” Dr Thackwray said.

“We have a large aging population – all the baby boomers – older patients are more at risk.

“Lots of people don’t get the flu vaccine as they think they can get flu after the vaccine but you can never get flu from a flu vaccine, and sometimes there’s a bit of misunderstanding about that.”

USC Clinical Trials is running a universal flu vaccine trial in what could be a game-changer in flu prevention for the elderly or people more susceptible to the flu.

Dr Thackwray said it has the potential to extend immunity against influenza strains for several years as opposed to the standard annual shot.

Dr Thackwray said the trial that began in March is a worldwide study being conducted throughout winter and is a double-blind study, which means the doctor and patient do not know if they have the placebo or the vaccine.

The data from this phase of the study will be compiled at the end of the flu season, with the vaccine research continuing over the next two winters.

The Prince Charles Hospital Brisbane Senior Registrar in the Emergency Department, Dr Su-Ann Yap, said she advises all her patients to get the flu vaccine yearly as it lowers the chance of infection even though it is not a guarantee.

“Studies done each year by the Australian health department showed the influenza vaccine effectiveness is at 30-60 per cent, which is actually quite low,” she said.

“The estimated effectiveness of the vaccine may depend on a number of factors – the outcome being measured, the age group predominantly affected – vaccine effectiveness is generally lower in older people than in younger adults and children – and the match between vaccine and circulating influenza strains.”

Dr Yap said the common cold was caused by many viruses, mainly the rhinovirus, which causes a runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing, sore throat and coughing with an occasional fever.

Confirmed cases of influenza in May from 2013 to 2019

Influenza is an infection caused by the influenza virus, with strains A, B and C (and possibly more).

The symptoms are similar to the common cold with high fevers, muscle aches and cold sweats.

With the flu season only just beginning, the spread of the flu is set to peak from July as the temperature and humidity drops, which creates the perfect breeding ground for the potentially deadly infection.

“Always stay home and away from public if you are unwell, especially from very young children or the elderly,” Dr Yap said.

“Maintain basic hand hygiene which is actually very effective at avoiding further spread of the virus.

“I always tell my patients to trust their gut feelings and no one will blame them for seeking medical attention.”