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START THE WEEK OFF RIGHT: Mild Australian flu season may mean the same for U.S.
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START THE WEEK OFF RIGHT: Mild Australian flu season may mean the same for U.S.

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One of the harsh reminders of the COVID-19 pandemic will be that viruses ignore borders. In a global society, what happens in China, Italy or Brazil doesn’t stay in China, Italy or Brazil.

There is no such thing as “China virus’’ if the virus finds one carrier and transmitter from another country. One infected becomes two, two become 12, thousands can become millions.

We are global carriers and transmitters of whatever bug is lingering among us.

Bharat Motwani, M.D., infectious disease specialist at Genesis Health System, said the spread of the novel coronavirus (SARS Cov2) will make everyone acutely aware of the connection we have with each other.

The country Motwani and others in the field of infectious disease have been watching recently is not China, but Australia, which is approaching the end of a mild influenza season. Flu-like illness have been down across all age groups in Australia.

According to the Australia National Disease Surveillance System, there have been 21,000 cases of influenza this season compared with 214,000 for the same period of 2019. Flu-related deaths are down from 486 in 2019 to 36 in 2020.

“Social distancing, masks and hand hygiene are not only effective measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, they may also be reducing the flu rate,” Motwani said.

Also down are deaths from other common causes, including motor vehicle accidents and workplace accidents. Emergency departments in hospitals across Australia have experienced lower volumes of patients.

“During a lockdown, Australia experienced what we have experienced here with lower volumes of patients in emergency departments. That is something we’re concerned about. We don’t want people to put off care they need until their condition becomes critical,” Motwani said.

Why Australia matters

Motwani said a concern is that the U.S. could be hit with a convergence of COVID-19 plus the seasonal influenza season. They are two distinct viruses so it would be possible to contract both at the same time or in a close time-frame, making high risk individuals even more vulnerable to serious or fatal illness.

The flu vaccines developed for use in the U.S. are based on evidence provided by the flu season in the Southern Hemisphere. The “match” of the flu vaccine to the strains in the flu virus can influence the strength and length of the U.S. flu season. Flu-related illness can account for 60,000 or more deaths in the U.S. in a single season. If the U.S. vaccine is not a good “match’’ to combat the most active strain of the virus going around, illness and death from flu can increase.

When should you get the shot?

“The positive news is that the same advice we have been using all these years to prevent illness from flu may be working because people are doing these things to prevent COVID-19,’’ Motwani said. “It will be interesting this fall to see what masks, social distancing, washing hands frequently and staying home if you are sick do to our flu season. We need a mild flu season like Australia with COVID-19 still out there.’’

Motwani said he usually recommends his patients wait until October to be vaccinated for seasonal influenza. But he also suggests the timing should be determined by the patient and primary care provider.

“The protection of the flu vaccine can wear down by early spring and flu may still be around in our community until the end of May. That is why I recommend October, although the vaccine has been available since August,’’ he said. “The important message is to get the vaccine sometime before flu season kicks in … mid-December for our community.’’

Motwani also recommends a pneumonia vaccine at 65 years old and older and for individuals younger than age 65 who are at higher risk because of underlying conditions.

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