It won’t just be colds causing concern this winter. Doctors are bracing themselves for a potential serious flu outbreak, and with up to 2500influenza-related deaths a year in Australia – higher than the death toll from our roads – the risks aren’t to be sniffed at.
Experts predict three strains of flu will hit all age groups. These include the swine flu or H1N1 strain that caused a pandemic in 2009, the H3N2 flu (which first appeared in 1968 in Hong Kong) and influenza B strains.
It’s still autumn, yet a higher than usual 3488 diagnosed flu cases have been reported.
Adults ignorant of risks
A survey by the Influenza Specialist Group (ISG) found that young to middle-aged adults are flouting warnings by choosing not to be vaccinated. More than 60 per cent of Aussies aged 35 to 49 said they either wouldn’t visit a GP for a flu shot, or “would have to think about it”, despite being at risk.
“Influenza is highly contagious [and] can affect the fit and healthy,” ISG chairman Dr Alan Hampson says. “However, there’s a belief among adult Australians that they’re at low risk and don’t require vaccination.”
The survey revealed that while 95 per cent of that age group had felt flu-like symptoms, more than half hadn’t had a flu shot and most didn’t know the vaccine changes every year.
The virus has a high mutation rate so new strains are constantly being created. The current vaccine protects against all three of this year’s likely strains and is 60-70 per cent effective. Professor Robert Booy, head of Clinical Research at the National Centre for Immunization Research & Surveillance, says that vaccination offers the best chance for getting through winter unscathed.
How to protect yourself
The flu typically strikes between late autumn and early spring. Symptoms include muscle and joint ache, a high fever, dry cough, sore throat, headache and feeling generally unwell. A common myth is that being healthy and active offers some protection against the flu but the illness infects indiscriminately.
Professor Booy says that Australians lack awareness about how to outsmart the flu. “We’re talking about potentially life-threatening complications and 13,500 hospitalisations from the flu each year, [so] understanding how to protect yourself should be resonating far more strongly.”
He adds that as well as being vaccinated, people need to understand the importance of good hygiene in protecting against flu. This includes regular handwashing, staying home if ill, using tissues when sneezing orcoughing and discarding them immediately.