Date: Thu 11 Apr 2019
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald [edited]
Scientists hope the 2019 flu vaccines will slow the record high numbers of flu outbreaks, which have already killed at least 7 people in New South Wales (NSW) this year . Australia so far has a record 27,540 lab-confirmed flu cases in 2019, as travellers returning from the northern hemisphere brought the flu home with them. While only 11 days in, this is already the worst April on record, with 3092 confirmed cases, the national surveillance system shows.
"This is a very interesting year," says Kim Sampson, chief executive of the Immunisation Coalition. Australia has never seen such record high flu rates during the warmer months, ahead of the full-blown winter flu season, he said. In NSW, a record 8035 flu cases have been laboratory-confirmed. The true flu rate is likely far higher.
The number of NSW cases for the first 3 months of 2019 is more than double that for the same period in 2017 and 2018. The March  flu count alone is 3.5 times that of March 2017 and 2018. Northern Sydney Local Health District recorded the highest number of confirmed flu cases in March  of 108. Between January and March , there were 27 confirmed flu outbreaks across NSW, including 17 at aged care facilities, killing 7 people and affecting 174 residents.
The high rate of confirmed summer flu is partly due to new highly sensitive rapid flu tests. But the frequency of aged care outbreaks and a rise in the number of people presenting to emergency departments with flulike illnesses has left little doubt that there has been more flu this summer than in previous years.
Most Australians get their vaccine in mid-April, before the typical June to September flu season, leaving the population unprotected in summer, particularly for 2 influenza A strains. A mild season in 2018 meant the community's natural immunity is likely to be lower than average.
People over 65 years of age are at particular risk from the flu. Their weaker immune systems can struggle to fight off the disease and don't react strongly to the standard flu vaccine -- leaving them unprotected.
But summer flu rates are not an accurate predictor of the winter flu season. "I don't think we can draw any conclusion about how severe the winter flu season will be or when it will start from this relatively new summer flu phenomenon," NSW Health's Communicable Diseases Director Dr. Vicky Sheppeard said.
The seasonal flu vaccines should offer good protection against the circulating H1N1 influenza A strain, Dr. Sheppeard said. But if the H3N2 strain becomes predominant, the vaccines will be less effective and older people will be more vulnerable. She urged parents of small children and other high-risk groups to book a flu vaccination from 1 May .
More than 250 000 flu vaccines have been delivered so far, including over 42 000 to aged care facilities across the state. Most GP clinics will have their Commonwealth-funded free flu vaccines by next month, Dr. Sheppeard said.
Free flu vaccines are available for pregnant women, aboriginal people, those over 65, and anyone with conditions such as asthma, diabetes, and heart disease. Flu vaccines will also be free for children under 5 (from 6 months old) under the NSW government's AUD 2.6 million (USD 1.9 million) program.
Based on the size of the vaccine orders, the health ministry is hopeful more children would be vaccinated against flu in 2019 than in previous years. People who are not eligible for free vaccines can get vaccines on the private market from their GP or an eligible pharmacist.
More than 650 people died from influenza-related illness in NSW in 2017. "Thanks to many factors, including the vigilance of the community last year , we avoided repeating the deadly flu season of 2017. We must not be complacent this year," Dr. Sheppeard said. [Byline: Kate Aubusson and Liam Mannix]
[The unusually high influenza activity in the interseasonal period in Australia is certainly a concern about the predicted impact during the winter months later on in the year. Vaccination of the high-risk groups is a priority, as soon as the vaccine becomes available, and would potentially help reduce associated morbidity and mortality. - ProMED Mod.UBA]