Massive Aussie flu spike divides doctors
THE number of reported flu cases in the first six months of the year has increased by 256 per cent in just five years, with 13,972 confirmed cases of influenza for 2018 compared to just 3919 cases over the same period in 2013.
The figures are from January 1 through to June 6 for both periods and are before the "official" flu season in Australia kicks off - usually in July.
The shocking increase is despite more awareness around the importance of the flu vaccination and understanding in the community of the symptoms of the flu.
Some experts say the increase is down to doctors ordering more tests to confirm influenza than they did five years ago.
However, others say it shows the influenza virus is on the rise and is being brought to our shores in the summer/autumn months due to more international visitors and more Australians holidaying overseas.
Compared to the same period last year, which was one of the worst flu seasons in many years, the number of cases to date has decreased by 3 per cent, with 14,459 cases in 2017 to June 6.
Last year, a total of 250,494 notifications of laboratory-confirmed influenza were reported to the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System for the entire year.
A total of 745 people died due to the virus in 2017 - the highest number on record.
This included eight-year-old Rosie Andersen and young mum-of-two Jennifer Thew.
In 2016 just 83,092 cases were confirmed by the end of the flu season.
Nigel Stocks, director of the Australian Sentinel Practices Research Network said the huge jump in reported cases earlier in the year could be partly down to increased testing, but he also acknowledged the influenza virus had grown in prevalence.
Dr Stocks said an increase in travel by Australians overseas and more international visitors coming to our shores could have boosted flu numbers in the off-season.
"We have to acknowledge a large proportion of the increase is simply down to increased testing but there is no way of knowing what proportion is down to that and the reality is there has been an increase in the influenza virus in Australia in the past five years," Dr Stocks said.
"However, there is no sign yet that this year's flu season is going to be worse than any other previous seasons," Dr Stocks said.
Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy said the reason for the increase was often complex but that more people could be presenting to their doctor with influenza and being tested for it.
"Changes in notifications over time may not solely reflect changes in disease incidence. Changes in testing policies; screening programs including the preferential testing of high risk populations; the use of less invasive and more sensitive diagnostic tests; and periodic awareness campaigns, are all factors that can influence the number of notifications that occur," Dr Murphy said.
He said over the past two weeks the strain most prevalent was influenza A, with 71 per cent of cases attributed to the strain.
"Vaccination is the best protection against the flu," Dr Murphy said.
President of the Australian Medical Association Tone Bartone said his personal experience was that the cases of influenza this year weren't as bad as last year but agreed globalisation had meant people were at risk of contracting the virus outside of the accepted "peak" periods.
"Probably the number one reason to explain the increase is that people are being tested more than ever but globalisation definitely has had an impact and is playing a role in explaining why we are seeing more cases earlier in the year," he said.
Opposition health spokeswoman Catherine King said the increase in flu cases in the early part of the year was "alarming" and questioned if the government was doing enough to make vaccines available.
"These numbers are alarming, particularly given the government's claims that this year's flu vaccines would be more effective and more readily available," Ms King said.
"We remain concerned the government responded too late to the shortage, potentially leaving some people exposed. Nonetheless, we urge all Australians to get vaccinated if they can - it's safe and it's the best protection you can get."
Experts say it is too early to tell if this year's flu vaccine, which experienced a shortage - despite more than 10 million being ordered, was effective.
SIGNS YOU MIGHT HAVE THE FLU
- Rapid and worsening nature of symptoms
- High temperatures
- Muscle aches
- Lethargy - not being able to get out of bed, sometimes for days
- Feeling washed out for weeks
- Runny, stuffy nose