As the US battles one of its worst flu seasons, will South Africans fare any better? asks Marchelle Abrahams
The year was 1918. The world was in the grip of the Spanish Flu. South Africa was the fifth hardest-hit country, with 500 000 fatalities. The epidemic spread far and wide because of the country's extensive railway system and large migrant population.
Fast-forward to 2018, and the US is experiencing its worst flu season since the 2009-10 swine flu pandemic, forcing the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to move quickly and quell any fears that it could become a full-blown pandemic.
It's not quite comforting news as The Washington Post last reported that the number of child deaths related to the virus now stands at 114 and could exceed 148 as the season draws to a close.
Vulnerable groups such as small children, the poor and the elderly seem to be the most at risk.
Just a few weeks ago, six-year-old Eden Murray's story made headlines. Because of her severe autism diagnosis, her family didn't think it strange when she stayed in bed the whole day. After a visit to the doctor and prescription of antibiotics, she died a few days later.
The big question is: Will its effects cause fatalities in South Africa?
Influenza kills between 6000 and 11000 South Africans every year.
About half of those deaths are among the elderly, and 30 percent among HIV-infected people, according to the latest stats from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
If the experts are to believed, South Africa's prognosis for the flu season doesn't look good either.
“The average duration of the colds and flu season over the past 33 years has been 12 weeks,” noted Nicole Jennings, spokesperson for Pharma Dynamics.
It's also been speculated that global warming is likely to impact the cold and flu season.
Jennings pointed out that it was once thought that global warming could bring on fewer deaths caused by respiratory infections during the colder months of the year, but contradictory research by Arizona State University found a significant link between warm winters and severe colds and flu cases.
There are usually between 20 to 30 different types of rhino-viruses circulating each season - only about 10 percent of those will show up again this year, meaning that the development of a vaccine for the common flu could be extremely difficult. And, as in the US, the most predominant flu strain in South Africa has been influenza A (H3N2).
But there's no call for alarmist reactions just yet. There are precautions you can take, including going for your annual flu shots. “The annual flu vaccine protects you against the current season's three or four most common flu virus strains,” explained Dr Bobby Ramasia, principal officer at Bonitas.
“Besides protecting yourself, it also protects the people around you, and can make the illness milder.”
The vaccine is the first line of defence when it comes to protecting yourself, with studies showing that it reduces the risk of flu by 50 to 60 percent.