October 25, 2017

Australia’s Bad Flu Season has American Health Officials Worried

By Megan Ray Nichols / 10.24.2017

Flu season is almost upon us — signs have started appearing in grocery store pharmacies advertising flu shots, and everyone has started stocking up on vitamin C and hand sanitizer. Australia, on the other hand, is currently in the grips of the worst flu season experts have ever seen. If what’s happening there is any indication of what’s to come, the United States better prepare itself for a potential pandemic.

What is happening in Australia, and what does that mean for flu season in America and the rest of the world?

Flu Season in Australia

Australia is experiencing more cases of influenza this year than it has recently — and earlier than normal. Flu season in the Northern Hemisphere usually starts around Halloween, when the weather starts to cool down. Australia and other areas in the Southern Hemisphere usually experience flu seasons earlier than their northern compatriots, which has experts concerned that many of the more vulnerable population sectors may not have taken precautions and gotten their flu shot yet this year.

The majority of the cases thus far have been detected in elderly patients over 80 and young children between the ages of 5 and 9. These individuals, along with those who have compromised immune systems, are at the most risk from viruses like the flu.

Currently, the strain being detected in Australia is designated H3N2, which is one of the four strains that this year’s vaccine was formulated to protect against.  If the strain has changed, even slightly, that may account for the increased number of cases appearing in Australia.

Flu Already Appearing in United States

While most areas in the United States won’t start seeing flu cases for a month or so yet, some areas have already started seeing confirmed cases of the flu. Pima County, Arizona, has had three confirmed cases since the beginning of August. These cases have been confirmed to be caused by this year’s strain rather than by leftover strains from previous years’ flu seasons.

Experts monitoring the cases in Arizona believe it is likely that flu season has started in the United States, based on these cases. In response, people should be taking precautions like getting their flu shot to lower their chances of becoming infected or spreading the virus to other individuals who may not have gotten their flu shot yet this year.

Bad News and Good News

The strain that is manifesting this year, H3N2, is well matched with this year’s vaccine, so experts suggest anyone who is vulnerable — elderly patients, young children, pregnant women, and those with compromised or weakened immune systems — get immunized as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, H3N2 is a strong strain of the flu virus. Vaccines are less effective against this particular strain, making it more likely that it will cause more severe cases of the flu than other strains might.

This is a good year for flu shots, because the vaccine formula matches the strain that is causing this year’s flu season. In previous years, there have been cases where a totally different strain becomes dominant, making it more difficult to protect the vulnerable elements of the population from the fury of the disease.

If Australia’s current flu season is any indication, we’re in for a rough year. The best thing you can do right now is to get your flu shot. It’s not a cure and it’s not a perfect way to prevent the flu, but it will likely help reduce the number of cases that occur this year. Individuals who are at the most risk should get their flu shot as soon as possible, because the flu season is already here.