Australia just had its worst flu season in 5 years, and experts in the United States are emphasizing the importance of flu shots for kids this year.
Typically, Australia’s flu season gives health experts in the U.S. an idea of what is in store for the winter flu season, since the virus travels around the world each year. This year, Australia has had the worst flu season in five years and surpassed pre-pandemic levels.
This has health experts nervous that the U.S. is in for a potential “flurona twindemic,” as in a simultaneous resurgence of COVID-19 and an especially bad influenza season.
"We've been predicting that the U.S. could be hit with this twindemic of influenza and COVID for the last couple of years, but it did not materialize before, in large part because influenza was relatively under control," Leana Wen, an emergency doctor and public health policy professor at George Washington University, explained to WebMD. "But now, with people returning to pre-pandemic normal [activities] and with less immunity to influenza because of the lack of recent infection, we could see that twindemic this year."
According to the latest report from the country’s Department of Health and Aged Care, “people aged 5–9 years, children aged younger than 5 years, and people aged 10–19 years have the highest notification rates.”
"Sixty percent of the hospitalizations in Australia have come from pediatric age groups, 16 and under, and that’s highly unusual,” Dr. Gregg Sylvester told USA Today.
“The overall immunity in the population is relatively low — particularly in the younger age groups,” he said. “That’s also supported by the fact that usually when we see an early flu season, that means there’s not a lot of immunity in the population.”
“Vaccine fatigue,” or the thought of having to get both a COVID booster and a flu shot this season, also might play a role in whether or not the U.S. experiences a twindemic. The idea of getting two vaccines in one season might not be appealing to everyone, especially parents with children who don’t do well with needles. Still, forgoing a flu shot and thinking a COVID vaccine or booster will be “enough” could be what leads to an especially detrimental flu season this year.
“We’ve had a falloff of the acceptance of the influenza vaccine. This fall, the anticipation is that we will have updated COVID vaccine boosters. And that’s great, but we’ll also have to persuade people to get their influenza vaccine, so they’ll have to roll up both sleeves. And this is not going to be easy,” William Schaffner, MD and professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine told WebMD.
In a typical flu season, people at higher risk of flu complications include a host of groups, including young children, children with neurologic conditions, pregnant people, and racial and ethnic minority groups, according to the CDC. Children under the age of 5, and especially children under the age of 2, are at a higher risk of developing complications like pneumonia, dehydration, brain dysfunction such as encephalopathy, worsening of already existing medical conditions like heart disease or asthma, ear infections, and, in rare cases, death.
This makes getting a flu shot for everyone in the family — especially children eligible for a flu vaccination — even more critical this year. For the 2019-2020 flu season, the CDC estimated that only 52.1% of Americans got vaccinated against the current strain of influenza.
“I don’t think that individuals need to start panicking about what’s going to happen this fall, but we need to prepare by ramping up these tools,” Wen said. “It would be just a shame if we didn’t make the most use of them.”
Time to schedule those last-minute vaccination appointments before heading back to school.