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What Can the U.S. Learn from Australia’s 2019 Flu Season?

Over the last few months, Australia has been reporting unusually high numbers of influenza virus cases compared with the same period in previous years. 

Some alarming headlines suggest that the high number of cases signaled the start of a severe influenza season. However, some experts believe these numbers actually represent an early start to the flu season.

The most recent influenza report from Australia’s Department of Health covers the period of July 15–28, 2019, and seems to indicate that the season may have peaked. 

The report’s summary describes flu virus activity as slightly higher when compared with previous years, but, the disparity has decreased in the past few weeks.

Severity, as measured by the proportion of cases admitted to ICU and deaths, is considered low. Cases of the prominent viral strain influenza A (H1N1 and H3N2) are in-line with most past seasons. Although, there has been an increase in the proportion of cases due to influenza B.

In June, Professor Robert Booy, from the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance at the University of Sydney Coalition, was cited in the Australian media saying the high number of flu virus cases seen to date were due to three strains of influenza circulating, and a lower level of immunity among the population following the mild 2018 season.1

Booy also believes the flu season may have peaked in late June — about two months ahead of the normal peak in August and September.2 Current data perhaps indicate this appears to be the case. And, a recent study suggests Australian influenza data can be used to predict the season in the U.S. and E.U.3

However, regardless of what the data may predict, it’s still important to follow these steps to prevent the spread of the flu virus and strengthen immunity:

  • Get vaccinated as early as possible.
  • Stay home when sick.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Practice correct hand hygiene.
  • Remember to cover your nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing.
  • Ensure surfaces in homes and offices are cleaned and disinfected regularly — especially surfaces commonly touched, such as door handles.

1. Clum R. Early surge in flu virus cases, but experts hope for early end to season. Sydney Morning Herald. June 23, 2019. https://www.smh.com.au/healthcare/early-surge-in-flu-cases-but-experts-hope-for-early-end-to-season-20190622-p520a2.html
2. Nell M. Flu deaths in Australia hit 300 as experts describe flu season as ‘moderately bad’. 7News.com.au. July 11, 2019. https://7news.com.au/news/health/flu-deaths-hit-300-as-season-passes-peak-c-209939.
3. Zhang Y, Yakob L, Bonsall MB, et al. Predicting seasonal influenza epidemics using cross-hemisphere influenza surveillance data and local internet query data. Scientific Reports. 2019;9(3262). https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-39871-2.