Coronavirus prevention crushed Australia’s flu season. Can Canada expect the same?

It’s the peak of flu season in Australia. At least it should be.

Usually, flu season runs through Australia’s winter — Canada’s summer — and officials look to Australia for clues on what Canada’s upcoming flu season could look like in terms of strains, caseload and severity.

But with Australian flu numbers at their lowest in years, officials have a different takeaway this time when they look Down Under: that measures used to combat the coronavirus outbreak could be having an effect on other viruses, too.

“I think it’s telling us that influenza is preventable in the same way that COVID is preventable, to some extent, anyway,” said Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta.

Read more: More Canadians planning on getting flu vaccine amid COVID-19, survey finds

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In a report released July 31, Australia’s health ministry notes that “influenza and influenza-like illness (ILI) activity are lower than average across all systems for this time of year.”

Australia had just 36 laboratory-confirmed flu deaths from January to July 26, 2020, the report said. Over the same period a year earlier, there were 383 confirmed deaths.

A chart in this year’s report shows the dramatic drop in confirmed flu cases, with them nearly flatlining since April.

Laboratory-confirmed flu cases by year in Australia. The red line shows 2020’s flu season.
Laboratory-confirmed flu cases by year in Australia. The red line shows 2020’s flu season. Australian Government Department of Health

Saxinger attributes this dramatic decline in flu numbers to lockdowns and other measures that Australia enacted to fight COVID-19.

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“They were tracking into what looked to be maybe early signs of severe flu season, like their inter-seasonal flu levels were relatively high,” she said. “And then in mid-March, everything plummeted because that’s when everything was shutting down and there was lockdown. And then for the rest of the time period, it’s been running essentially below the radar.”

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The same thing could happen in Canada, suggests Dr. Jeff Kwong, interim director of the Centre for Vaccine-Preventable Diseases at the University of Toronto.

In Australia, “the public health measures against COVID have also helped to suppress influenza activity,” he said.

“I think if we’re able to maintain our current intensity of public health measures – the physical distancing, handwashing, wearing masks, all that sort of thing – I think we might see very little influenza activity.”

Coronavirus: Canadian health officials say they’re looking at changes in human behaviour this fall and its impact on COVID-19

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