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Influenza is One to Watch Out for This Winter

Now two flu seasons are exactly the same. In 2012, the virus H3N2 caused a minimal burden with limited hospitalizations and death. But that wasn’t the case of the 2014/2015 flu season – which caused a 15-year high of deaths and hospitalisations – and the 2017/2018 influenza – during which A and B influenza viruses circulated at the same time. 

So, what will this year’s influenza be like? While the whole world’s eyes are on Covid-19, Pharmacist Stuart Gale from Oxford Online Pharmacy warns “Influenza is one to watch out for this winter.”

While moderate-to-high strength viruses are expected to circulate during the flu season, there are no precedents that can help us prepare for the upcoming “twindemic”. Let’s look at possible upcoming scenarios and how to remain protected throughout the winter months. 

What Is the Seasonal Flu?

Seasonal flu – or influenza – is a respiratory illness caused by a range of viruses. These viruses are highly contagious and tend to affect the throat, nose, and lungs. Each year, the virus behind seasonal flu changes, which makes it difficult to forecast the severity, intensity, and burden of the upcoming flu epidemics.

Flu symptoms can vary from mild to severe, but they commonly include fever, cough, sore throat, muscle aches, headaches, fatigue, and runny nose. In most cases, the virus spreads through droplets that are passed from a person to another when sneezing, coughing, or talking – not so dissimilarly to how Covid-19 spreads. 

Any person of any age can be affected by flu viruses. However, there are some groups that are at a higher risk of developing severe symptoms. These include:

  • People who are 65 or older
  • Children under the age of 5
  • People with chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and asthma
  • Pregnant women
  • Individuals with a suppressed or weak immune system

Flu Season and COVID-19 – Is a “Twindemic” Underway?

Seasonal flu is responsible for around 30,000 deaths in the UK and an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 deaths worldwide – each year! However, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, worldwide lockdowns, quarantines, and self-distancing rules have caused influenza cases to drop to an all-time low. 

Nonetheless, most countries around the world are now easing or dropping Covid-19 restrictions, which has caused a surge in Covid-19 cases – just before the flu season is behind. Because of this, the pharmacists at the Online Oxford Pharmacy and epidemiologists report high levels of uncertainty around what this year’s flu season will be like. 

According to the leading British scientific journal Nature, the easing Covid-19 restrictions could be behind an extremely fierce flu rebound. So, is a twindemic around the corner? 

A Catastrophic Flu Season? Let’s Look At The Numbers

According to CNBC reports, this year’s flu season could be “catastrophic” – for more than one reason. Here’s what is what the experts fear:

  • Unpredictability – every year, flu forecasts and studies regarding the flu strain that will trigger the endemics are used to warn and prepare healthcare professionals and the wider audience. However, this year, The situation is far more unpredictable, especially as Covid-19’s waves are difficult to foresee. The combination of these factors makes it challenging to predict this year’s flu season severity and burden.
  • Healthcare burden – according to recent statistics, in the UK, seasonal flu causes between 19,000 and 31,200 hospital admissions. While the healthcare system expects and can cope with the increase in admissions, hospitals are already dealing with the added Covid-19 patients admitted each day (averaging at 800 a day).
  • Simultaneous Covid-19 and flu infections – it is possible to deal with simultaneous Covid-19 and seasonal flu infections, which can significantly affect the immune system. In turn, this can put younger and healthier people at a greater risk of complications. This, coupled with the added strain on hospitals can make treatments less efficient. 

Over the past two years, seasonal flu viruses have almost disappeared from the Earth. During what was supposed to be the 2020/2021 flu season, the US reported fewer than 700 deaths (the average is in the tens of thousands) and just one paediatric death, while Australia reported none. 

However, there is still a lot of uncertainty among healthcare professionals, epidemiologists, and infectious disease specialists on whether the 2021/2022 flu season will be similar to last year’s or a supercharged “twindemic”. 

How COVID-19 Restrictions Could Help With Curbing the Upcoming Flu Season

Whether the upcoming flu season will be extremely powerful or nonexistent, there is a lot that can be done to curb its spread and reduce its burden. A typical flu season will cause around 30-40 million symptomatic cases worldwide, 400-800 thousand hospitalisations, and 20-50 thousand deaths. These numbers are made much greater by the average 50,000 Covid-19 cases reported each day. 

However, self-distancing measures have been effective in curbing previous Covid-19 waves – and they had the beneficial side effect of drastically reducing the number of seasonal flu cases worldwide.

Additionally, global vaccine rollout campaigns are delivering positive results. Healthcare authorities across the Uk and abroad are orchestrating the delivery of flu vaccines alongside Covid-19 approved vaccines. 

While the annual flu programme carried out by the NHS has been effective in reducing the number of flu-related hospitalisations and deaths, this year it can be even more valuable. Luckily, thanks to the combined administration of Covid-19 and flu vaccines, this year’s turnout has been among the highest ones on record. And, if just 25% more people than usual get their flu jab, the contagion rate can be significantly decreased. 

Keeping Safe and Healthy During the Winter Months

While the thought of a combined flu and Covid-19 wave can be intimidating, there is a lot each person can do to keep safe and healthy throughout the winter months. Firstly, Covid-19 measures can help curb the spread of the seasonal flu as well. 

Therefore, wearing a face covering, practising self-distancing, and ensuring you are self-isolating if unwell are useful actions to take. Additionally, following a healthy lifestyle and diet can help you strengthen your immune system and reduce the chances of complications, severe symptoms, and hospitalisation. 

Lastly, as the Omicron variant is becoming prevalent, it has never been more important to get vaccinated – against Covid-19 and seasonal flu viruses alike. This won’t just protect ourselves, but also the lives of our loved ones and frontline workers alike. 

Photo by Gustavo Fring from Pexels

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