Flu season is making a comeback this year, experts warn

Flu season is making a comeback this year, experts warn

After a two-year hiatus, the flu could return this year with a vengeance.

Data from the southern hemisphere, which is in its flu season, shows cases exceeding pre-pandemic levels, causing health experts to worry about what awaits Americans this year.

“This could be an early warning system for us that this is the time to start thinking about influenza,” said Dr. Gregg Sylvester, chief medical officer of Seqirus, a New Jersey-based manufacturer of influenza vaccines. . “If we’re not prepared … we could have a very naive population and we could see quite high rates.”

Health experts point to data in Australia, where flu season runs from May to September, to get a sense of what’s possible for Americans. Like US residents, Australians experienced unprecedented levels of flu during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. As of mid-July last year, only about 400 cases were reported there, with no hospitalizations or deaths.

This year, as of mid-July, almost 205,000 cases have been reported and 181 people have died. There have been around 1,500 hospitalizations, with 6.7% admitted directly to intensive care.

“Flu cases were going up at a very high rate and ended up being the highest rate they’ve seen in I’m not sure how long,” said Andy Pekosz, a virologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “When the cases [went] down, they stabilized at a higher baseline than we saw before the pandemic.”

Data from Australia’s surveillance system shows flu cases this year have already surpassed those of 2019, when around 150,000 cases were reported in mid-July.

Experts say this may be due to increased transmission or because the flu season started earlier this year, with cases rising in April.

“That’s one of the things we’re thinking about right now in the US: how to deal with an early wave of influenza,” Pekosz said.

Experts are also concerned that school-age children and teens will be more at risk this year. In a normal season, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that children younger than 2 years old and adults older than 65 years are considered to be at higher risk for complications from the flu.

But Australia’s flu report shows that children aged 5 to 9 have the highest rate of flu this year, followed by children under 4 and adolescents.

“Sixty percent of hospitalizations in Australia are from the pediatric age group, under 16, and that’s very unusual,” Sylvester said.

Younger people getting the flu is a sign that the general population is less protected against the virus than in previous years, experts say.

Natural immunity tends to last a bit longer than vaccine-induced immunity, Pekosz said. After two seasons of historically low flu transmission, most people were not exposed to the virus and did not develop natural immunity.

“Overall immunity in the population is relatively low, particularly in younger age groups,” he said. “That’s also supported by the fact that typically when we see an early flu season, that means there’s not a lot of immunity in the population.”

Health experts say the flu shot is especially important this year and recommend that Americans consider getting vaccinated earlier than usual, as data from Australia suggests the season could start earlier. Rite Aid and Walgreens announced that flu shots are now available for scheduled and walk-in appointments.

A CVS spokesperson said “patients can visit most CVS pharmacies or MinuteClinic clinics and receive a walk-in flu shot, pending supply.” The company also said that its digital scheduler will be live “soon.”

Although vaccines are available, health experts caution against getting vaccinated too early, fearing that vaccine-induced immunity will wane later in the season. They recommend scheduling an appointment between September and October and also remind Americans that it’s never too late to get vaccinated.

It is too early to determine the effectiveness of the vaccine in the southern hemisphere, but experts say the strains circulating in Australia appear to match the strains announced by the World Health Organization this year.

Like the COVID vaccine and booster, Pekosz said the flu shot is highly effective at preventing serious illness, hospitalizations and deaths. As Americans await a coronavirus booster targeting omicrons in the fall, he hopes they won’t forget about the flu.

“They may be tired of hearing about boosters and vaccinations, but they are working,” Pekosz said. “This year in particular, it will be important to emphasize that you need both your COVID booster and flu shot for maximum protection in the fall and winter seasons.”

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