One of the few surprisingly positive effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is that there were significantly less cases of flu in Queensland than previous years. Between 2015-2019 there was around 38,000 lab-confirmed cases of flu each year. But there were just over 6,000 cases in 2020 (and most of those cases occurred early on in the year). This reduction in cases wasn’t just from lock down. Factors such as border closures, the reduction of large gatherings, social distancing, improved hand hygiene, and the use of face masks all helped.
The number of flu cases per year, 2015 – 2020
If there’s so little flu around, why get vaccinated?
Despite the low number of cases, it is still important to get the flu vaccine. The flu has not totally gone away, and we still face the possibility of a serious flu season.
On top of this, there’s always the risk you could get the flu and COVID-19 at the same time (particularly if you haven’t been vaccinated against either.
Some background on the flu
The flu (or influenza) is a group of respiratory viruses. Typical symptoms include fever, nasal congestion, headaches, coughs, muscle aches and pains, a sore throat and fatigue.
The flu is highly contagious; usually spreading when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Droplets containing the influenza virus land on surfaces, such as telephones and doorknobs, and can then pass from hands to the nose, mouth or eyes. If you have the flu, you can be infectious from 24 hours before you have symptoms until a week afterwards.
The flu can be really serious. Complications can even be deadly: causing an estimated 3,500 deaths in Australia each year. While most of us get over the flu after seven days or so, it can sometimes lead to other serious health problems, like bronchitis or pneumonia, or make any existing health problems worse.
Different strains dominate each year. Influenza evolves and mutates, creating new strains, which people may not have immunity against. And different strains can be more severe for certain age groups.
The flu versus COVID-19
Both the flu and the virus that causes COVID-19 can have similar symptoms. You can get vaccinated against both the flu and COVID-19, but you should wait at least 7 days between having the flu vaccine and the COVID-19 vaccine.
You can find out more about the symptoms of COVID-19 compared with flu, common cold and allergies here. If you have any symptoms, always stay at home and get tested.
Why vaccination is the best protection against flu
Virtually everyone over six months of age should get a flu vaccine every year (unless there are specific medical reasons why they can’t). This will help prevent you from getting ill with influenza. Getting the vaccine from April allows your immune system to develop protection well ahead of peak flu season, which is usually around July and August.
Vaccination also limits the spread of the virus to others in the community, particularly those most vulnerable to infection.
Even if you’ve already had the flu vaccine, you should get it again every year. The vaccine is updated annually to boost immunity against the most common circulating strains.
In Australia, the flu vaccine is free for all children aged six months to under five years and for those aged 65 years and over, pregnant women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and individuals with various medical conditions that increase their risk of complications. This includes severe asthma, diabetes, lung or heart disease and low immunity.
How is the flu vaccine made?
In February and September each year, the World Health Organization (WHO) holds a conference with leading experts and influenza centres worldwide to make recommendations about the composition of the next season’s flu vaccine. After the September conference, the Australian Influenza Vaccine Committee meet with the Therapeutic Goods Administration to confirm which strains will be included in the Australian flu vaccine. The vaccine funded for the National Immunisation Program contains the two most common strains of both Influenza A and Influenza B.
The vaccines then need to be made. This is a long, time-consuming process, which requires large amounts of each virus strain needing to be created to make enough vaccine doses.
Once that is done, it’s time to book your shot, and roll up your sleeves.