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Australia has already recorded more flu cases this season than it did for the entire 2017 flu season. Getty Images
  • Australia has gone through one of its worst flu seasons in recent years.
  • Health officials in the United States are bracing for a tough flu season here because of what happened in the Southern Hemisphere.
  • Officials are urging everyone to get a flu shot by the end of October to reduce the number of cases.

Australia has just weathered one of its worst flu seasons on record and experts are warning this could mean a severe flu season is on the way for the United States.

The 2019 flu season in Australia usually spans from June to September and peaks in August. However, it started early this year.

It produced a record number of influenza cases in summer and autumn.

And it’s still going.

“This will be a gangbuster of a year,” Ian Barr, deputy director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza based in Australia, told Healthline.

“This will be the longest season I think we’ve had probably as long as things have been recorded,” Barr noted.

Australia’s last bad flu season was in 2017, which saw more than 229,000 laboratory confirmed cases of influenza reported by the end of October.

This year’s flu season in Australia has already exceeded that, with 272,146 laboratory confirmed cases reported by the end of the first week of September.

Barr says the actual number of people with influenza is likely much higher.

“It’s a very high number approaching 300,000 — and that’s the tip of the iceberg because not everyone that has flu goes to the doctor,” he said.

He argues the reported numbers of influenza may represent just 10 percent of the real number of cases.

The Australia season is prompting influenza experts in the United States to prepare for the worst.

“That bothers me. I’m tightening my seatbelt in anticipation that we may have something similar,” Dr. William Schaffner, an influenza expert at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, told Healthline.

“It’s a bit ominous. I see some storm clouds on the horizon. Australia’s influenza season, which of course immediately proceeds ours, is not an exact template but can give us some ideas about what we might expect,” he said. “So I’m concerned we might, once more, have this odd double-barreled influenza season with two dominant viruses.”

Earlier this month, a 4-year-old boy in California died after testing positive for influenza.

“That gave everyone a chill and that’s distinctly early for us,” Schaffner said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that people should get vaccinated before the onset of influenza. They say vaccinations should take place by the end of October.

For children ages 6 months to 8 years who need 2 doses, the CDC advises the child should receive the first dose as soon as possible once the vaccine becomes available in order to receive the second dose (which is administered 4 weeks after the first) by the end of October.

Supply of the flu vaccine is dependent on the private manufacturers who produce it.

For the 2019-2020 flu season, manufacturers estimate there will be 162 million to 169 million doses available in the United States.

Last week, federal officials announced that 70 million flu shots would be delayed due to the need to recalibrate the vaccine.

On Thursday, President Trump signed an executive order designed to improve flu vaccine manufacturing and effectiveness.

Early figures suggest the vaccine used in Australia this year was effective.

“If there is a ray of hope, the influenza vaccine that was used in the Southern Hemisphere was a very good match against those strains. We trust that we will also have a very good match,” Schaffner said.

Every year, experts around the world attempt to predict what the next flu season will look like. It’s a task Schaffner says can be difficult to get right.

“There’s always a bit of crystal ball gazing, trying to predict what’s going to happen 9 months ahead. With influenza, it has that tendency to mutate,” he said.

“Sometimes you’re right on target, but sometimes you’re off target because in that 9-month interval the virus mutates and drifts from the strain that is in the vaccine,” he added.

Stephen Morse, PhD, is an expert in influenza and infectious diseases at Columbia University in New York.

He says taking note of the experiences of the Southern Hemisphere is helpful in preparing for the flu season in the Northern Hemisphere.

“The flu season here may end up differently, but knowing what the Southern Hemisphere season was like should keep us on our toes,” Morse told Healthline.

“In a study we did, Australia seemed a good predictor for the temperate zones of the Northern Hemisphere only about 50 percent of the time… but we should pay attention to it. It’s the only real advance notice we get,” he said.

Australia may have had a rough flu season, but Morse argues with increased vigilance, good educational messaging, and decent vaccine coverage, the United States might not have the same fate as Australia.

“It’s not inevitable — we just haven’t done a very good job in stopping flu epidemics,” he said. “Every seasonal influenza virus that successfully causes an epidemic has to pass from person to person in an unbroken chain, like a bucket brigade. If we could effectively break that chain, we could stop the epidemic.”

“From what we know about flu transmissibility, we’d have to reduce transmission by a little over 50 percent,” he continued. “Doesn’t seem so hard, does it? But we’ve never succeeded at this. In the meantime, our vaccine coverage rates rarely exceed 50 percent at best.”

The recent 2017-2018 U.S. flu season was unusually long with a high level of influenza activity compared with other seasons.

During this season, vaccine effectiveness was estimated to be 38 percent, yet was thought to have prevented more than:

  • 7 million illnesses
  • 3.7 million doctors’ visits
  • 109,000 hospitalizations
  • 8,000 deaths

Experts say it doesn’t matter whether the flu season will be severe or not, everyone should get vaccinated regardless.

“The recommendations in the U.S. couldn’t be simpler. Everyone older than 6 months of age should be vaccinated,” Schaffner said.

“There will be flu, and therefore you should get vaccinated,” he said. “Don’t depend upon the predictions to decide whether you should get vaccinated. I think that’s a real fallacy.”