Australia’s complacency over influenza has led to an increase in cases and deaths from the disease, experts have warned.
From January 1 to June 25 this year, 116,473 flu notifications were reported to the National Notifiable Disease Surveillance System, as well as 107 influenza-related deaths and 1,236 hospitalizations.
Despite many people associating flu deaths with older people, three young Australians have died from the disease in recent months, shocking the nation.
An 11-year-old Queensland girl and a NSW Central Coast teenager both died from influenza this week, sparking fears about the effects of the flu.
Emma Schwab, an 11-year-old Queensland girl (pictured), and a NSW Central Coast teenager both died from influenza this week, sparking fears about the effects of the flu.
These figures are not a surprise to health experts, as vaccination rates are lagging behind previous years
According to Associate Professor Paul Griffin, director of infectious diseases at Mater Health, complacency stems from a misunderstanding of how serious the disease is.
‘During Covid we’ve had an unprecedented low number of flu cases, I think we’ve had less than 1000 in a year which is unheard of and that means we’ve had fewer people with recent exposure,’ he said.
‘But the main driver is that people have lost sight of the significance of flu and that has led to low vaccination rates.’
Australians aged 5 to 15 are the least likely to be vaccinated at 13.7 per cent, followed by those aged 15 to 50 at 20.5 per cent.
Australia’s complacency around influenza has led to rising cases of the disease and rising deaths, experts have warned
Professor Robert Boy says low vaccination rates among young people are contributing significantly to the problem.
According to pediatrician and infectious disease specialist Professor Robert Bue, only 23.6 per cent of children under the age of five have been vaccinated against the flu, a worrying figure driven by complacency and people immunising ‘a bit too much’.
‘[The vaccine uptake] It’s incredibly inadequate to provide protection and considering we’ve been giving free flu vaccinations to under-fives for several years now we should be doing better,’ he said.
As a result, young people are much more likely to get the flu, with 57 per cent of those in NSW under the age of 20 and 36 per cent under the age of 10.
Children under the age of five are at particular risk of serious illness and the consequences of the disease can be fatal, with a previously healthy three-year-old Perth boy dying suddenly of the flu in June.
Muhammad Sadiq Segaf contracted influenza before rapidly deteriorating and going into cardiac arrest. Doctors fought to save him with open-heart surgery, but he could not be revived.
Three-year-old Muhammad Sadiq Segaf contracted influenza before rapidly deteriorating and going into cardiac arrest in May.
Preventive measures are always helpful to avoid the flu, and Professor Boy says it’s never too late to get vaccinated, even if you’ve already caught it this year.
Professor Griffin argued that attitudes towards children and Covid-19 are driving the rise in flu among young people.
‘We’ve been assuring people that children are less at risk from Covid, but it’s very different with influenza and I think a lot of people lose sight of that, children who get the flu, they spread the flu and they can. Sick of it,’ he said.
‘Traditionally, and as we see at the moment, our highest rates of notification as well as hospitalization actually occur in children.’
Although influenza A led the charge early in the flu season, influenza B is now taking over as the dominant strain.
Although the A strain is considered more severe, both can be ‘vicious’ and cause serious illness.
Associate Professor Paul Griffin is urging all Australians, including those who have already been exposed to the disease, to get a flu shot
The recent increase in serious cases is not surprising to health experts, as vaccination rates lag behind previous years
‘Flu B is generally considered a less severe version, it doesn’t cause pandemics and it doesn’t change as much but what we’re seeing now is that it can cause more severe disease in children,’ Professor Griffin said.
‘That’s why our vaccine actually contains two flu A strains and two flu B strains so we can protect people against both.’
Professor Boy says it’s not too late to get vaccinated and protect yourself and your children from the disease, even if you’ve already caught it this year.
According to Professor Griffin only 5-10 per cent of children who get the flu need to be taken to hospital, but he has some advice for parents worried about their sick children.
“If you’re wondering if your child needs to be screened, it’s best to err on the side of caution,” he says.
‘The main type of thing we’re concerned about is a respiratory infection, so if children are having trouble breathing or are breathing in a significant way, that’s a good indication to get checked out.
‘Severe infections can cause central nervous system problems and make children irritable or drowsy… There can be skin changes, if the skin looks mottled or pale, definitely get them reviewed.’
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