What will the 2020 flu season be like? Will it hit unexpectedly early, as in 2019? Or will it be exceptionally severe, as in 2017? The short answer is, we can’t be sure. But we can be sure that flu season is coming, and the best defence is vaccination. So why is it so hard to predict how a flu season will play out?
The dreaded flu season is coming
The flu is a familiar threat that is with us all year round. Some people are unlucky enough to get the flu in warmer months – even in the height of summer. In a world of mass international travel, outbreaks also easily cross boundaries of geography, and therefore seasons. After all, it is always winter somewhere.
However, the number of people who get sick predictably spikes every winter, with the peak often persisting into early spring. This is the dreaded ‘flu season’. Each flu season is different. Sometimes it is shorter or longer than usual. Sometimes it starts or finishes earlier or later. Normally in Australia and New Zealand, flu season spans June to October, peaking in August or September. However, in both countries, the 2019 flu season started and peaked unusually early, starting in March, and peaking in June and July.
In Australia in particular, the 2019 season saw large numbers of people struck down, with the highest number of laboratory-confirmed cases of flu ever recorded (over 310,000). This figure only counts people who were formally tested for the flu. It is highly likely many more people who got sick were not tested.
The 2017 season remains one of the deadliest, most severe and costly flu seasons of recent times in both Australia and New Zealand. It saw very high rates of illness, admission to hospital, and tragically many deaths, from the illness. We can’t be certain when another severe season, like that seen in 2017, will happen again.
An ever-evolving threat
Predicting how bad a flu season will be is tricky because the flu is a devious illness. Experts work feverishly every year to keep up with its attempts to outsmart us. Despite their great work, there remains an element of uncertainty.
One reason is because flu viruses are diverse. Usually, we talk about the flu as though it is one disease caused by one virus. But really, there is a whole family of flu viruses. They are alike in lots of ways, but slightly different from each other. Rather like a group of siblings who are not identical, but look and act very much alike. We call these different types of flu virus ‘strains’
Another reason is that flu viruses constantly change in unpredictable ways. These changes alter the way they act in the body, and the way they look to the body’s immune system. If the change is significant, the body’s immune system can’t recognise them as the flu anymore. Rather like each of our imaginary siblings changing their hair, glasses or make-up just enough to disguise themselves. These changes produce new and different strains.
Different types of flu vary in how sick they tend to make people, and how easily they spread. Flu is always nasty, but some versions really are nastier than others. Therefore, to predict how bad a flu season will be, we need to know which strains will dominate, how they will affect people, when, and how. Getting this right is the holy grail of flu research. Everyday people can contribute to the effort by participating in the crowd-sourced FluTracking efforts jointly supported by Australian and New Zealand authorities and research centres. Scientists around the world (including at the University of Melbourne, Centers for Disease Prevention and Control) are also working on complex systems for collecting and analysing flu data to accurately predict flu. Until they achieve that (and probably win a Nobel Prize for their trouble), the diverse and changeable nature of flu viruses will keep us guessing about how severe each flu season will be.
Vaccination – the best defence against a shifting enemy
Scientists haven’t (yet) managed to make one vaccine that can recognise flu in all its different guises and disguises. Therefore, vaccinations must target specific strains, by teaching the body to recognise and attack them quickly and aggressively. This can stop the vaccinated person getting sick.
However, when the strains change, so must the vaccine. The new vaccine will teach the body to recognise the new, slightly different, threat. That’s why it is vital to get vaccinated every year – to make sure your body’s virus protection (just like your computer’s virus protection) is up-to-date. To be protected, your employees need to be vaccinated every year.
So how do scientists know which strains to target with the vaccine? Every year, an international team of scientists and public health officials work together to decide which strains of the flu will be targeted in the vaccine for the upcoming flu season in the southern then northern hemisphere. This international effort is coordinated by the World Health Organisation using data on flu cases from all around the world. This rigorous scientific process identifies the ‘enemy number one’ (and two, and three, and four) of flu strains each year. Once these strains are identified, a vaccine is developed to target them.
For 2020, year the World Health Organisation has recommended two different combinations of flu strains for vaccines in Australia and New Zealand. One option includes three strains, the other includes four.
Act now to protect your employees
The scientists have done the work developing a vaccine – now it’s time to do your bit. Vaccination is the best way to protect your employees from the flu, and your organisation from the costs that employee illness brings. It’s never too early to plan for the best flu protection.
Vaccination is at the heart of our flu prevention program. We offer a digital booking platform, professional nurse care, and resources that will boost employee participation. To find out more about our flu program, contact us today.
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