Australia’s early flu season shows Americans need their injections

Australia’s early flu season shows Americans need their injections

Australia’s early flu season shows Americans need their injections

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After a two-year hiatus, the flu is back. An early rise in the number of cases in Australia has alarmed public health authorities there — and should prompt the US to put the known virus back on the public’s radar.

“There’s no question that we’re in for a big season,” said Ian Barr, deputy director of the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Center for Reference and Research on Influenza. Even as the number of tests in Australia has increased, identifying more people with the flu, the numbers of cases are following a path similar to that of the 2019 flu season, a record year for flu in Australia. Argentina and South Africa are also showing modest early signs of a tougher flu season.

Activity in the Southern Hemisphere isn’t always a good predictor of what’s going to happen in the Northern Hemisphere, but signs of flu making a comeback should at least be a warning sign for the US, which saw little enthusiasm for the flu vaccine last year . As with Covid vaccines, flu shots cannot prevent people from contracting the virus, but they can prevent the worst effects of infection.

Vaccination complacency can be dangerous in the first fall and winter without Covid rules. Public health authorities must ensure that access to shots is as easy as possible.

The past two years have been weird for the flu. During the first flu season of the pandemic, there were virtually no cases in the US. Even in the second, activity did not follow the typical pattern. The biggest (still minor) spike came in April — the first time it’s been this late, says Lynette Brammer, who leads the Domestic Influenza Surveillance team at the Centers for Disease Control. The flu from last winter is still circulating in some parts of the country.

“It’s just wild that we’re sitting here on June 2 and still have significant flu activity,” Scott Hensley, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies flu, told me.

The most obvious explanation for these calm and strange flu seasons is that limited international travel, social distancing, mask mandates and other Covid restrictions gave the flu virus little chance to spread. The belated bump in cases this spring came as mask mandates and other Covid rules were lifted.

A second theory, which has yet to be proven, is that infection with one virus prevents a second virus from taking hold. The dreaded “twin disease” of flu and Covid at the same time has not yet materialized. But with no evidence that viral interference is real, the possibility remains that next winter could spark waves of both viruses.

At this point, a return of the flu can do more damage than usual. After two seasons of low activity, more people have no immunity. Children, who are typically exposed to the flu by the time they are 3 years old, are particularly naive to the virus.

It is worrying that flu vaccination rates have fallen, even among the most vulnerable. In the past two years, the proportion of children receiving the flu shot has fallen from 62% to 55%. In pregnant women, the vaccination rate fell from more than 65% to 52%.

Of course, many people saw their caregivers less during the pandemic, and no doubt many are also feeling some vaccine fatigue. People who still work from home have missed flu shots at the office.

But public health authorities need to push vaccination rates back up. Several states and territories in Australia have taken the unprecedented step of offering free shots. Research shows that people are more likely to have shots if they are recommended and offered to them by their doctor. Companies must return to providing vaccines at work, pediatric practices must consider how to ensure that parents can be vaccinated along with their children, and school districts must work to increase the number of routine flu shots in children.

At the same time, it looks like another round of Covid boosters will be needed in the fall. People need to know that it’s okay to get Covid and flu shots at the same time. And alignment is needed to ensure that places that offer one have an adequate supply of the other.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Like flu shots, Covid boosters need an annual schedule: Lisa Jarvis

• What’s worse than a pandemic? A Twindemic: Theresa Raphael

• Do you realize that Covid-19 could come back in the fall?: Justin Fox

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lisa Jarvis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist on biotech, healthcare and the pharmaceutical industry. Before that, she was editor-in-chief of Chemical & Engineering News.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion