After two years of low influenza case numbers during the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns of a possibly harsh flu season.
“The United States has experienced relatively little influenza activity since 2020, thanks, in part, to community mitigation measures used to control the spread of COVID-19, making the country ripe for a severe influenza season,” the CDC told VOA in an email.
According to the CDC, the flu is already spreading in parts of the South, with relatively high activity levels in Georgia and Texas, compared to the same period last year.
Although the influenza season in the U.S. is just beginning, “based on what we have seen in parts of the Southern Hemisphere, flu has the potential to hit us hard this year,” Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, said earlier this month.
Researchers often look to the Southern Hemisphere because its flu season hits first, usually from May to October, to foreshadow what will happen in the north, where flu season usually starts in October, peaks in December and can last through May.
Australia’s flu season hit that country two months earlier than usual and caused one of its worst seasons in recent years, with cases peaking about three times higher than average, according to the Australian government’s Department of Health and Aged Care. During Australia’s 2022 flu season, of the 225,332 laboratory-confirmed cases, there have been 308 influenza-associated deaths, the agency reported. In comparison, in 2020, of the 21,266 laboratory-confirmed cases, there were 37 influenza-associated deaths.
The flu hit younger people especially hard in Australia. Although COVID-19 has been relatively mild for younger people, experts caution that children may be at especially high risk this year. That’s because many children have not been exposed to the flu due to COVID-19 safety precautions, including the use of masks, remote learning and social distancing taken in recent years, leaving them without natural immunity.
Influenza A, which causes more serious illness than other strains of the virus, is more prevalent this year, according to CDC data. It also spreads about two to three times more rapidly than Influenza B, a less common type of influenza.
Although influenza symptoms are similar to those of a common flu, they are typically more intense and begin more abruptly. The symptoms include common cold symptoms, such as a cough or runny nose, but also range to symptoms such as a fever or body aches. Some people also experience vomiting or diarrhea, although this is more common in children than adults.
The CDC urges that Americans ages 6 months and older get a flu shot by the end of October. Experts say it’s the best way to be protected from the ailment.
“Over the past two years, we’ve seen some worrisome drops in flu vaccination coverage, especially in some groups of people who are at the highest risk of developing serious flu illness,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a news conference earlier this month.
Health officials fear fewer people will be vaccinated because of the anti-vaccine sentiment that increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. A survey by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases found that fewer Americans said they will get the flu shot compared to years before.
The CDC told VOA News in an email that to help avoid the flu, “people should continue to practice the everyday preventive actions that we saw work so well during the pandemic like social distancing, frequent handwashing, staying home when you are sick, and covering coughs and sneezes.”
“With a potentially challenging flu season ahead, I urge everyone to protect themselves and their families from flu and its potentially serious complications,” Walensky said.