Experts believe the lockdown has delayed the 2020 flu season
Limited social interaction, regular hand washing and other sanitary practices, as well as the compulsory wearing of masks, has reduced the spread of the respiratory illness which is believed to be responsible for the deaths of about 10 000 South Africans each year.
As the nation enters its second month of winter, health officials have declared that the seasonal flu has not yet started.
Last year, patients started getting colds and the flu from as early as April.
The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) recently explained that while the traditional winter flu season usually began to spike in the country around the middle of April, they detected two flu strains in the Western Cape by the beginning of last month only.
“There has been no influenza circulating from all other provinces in 2020,” it said.
The NICD said the Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) season usually began at the end of February but, this year, it was barely detected by the end of last month.
This virus is another common pathogen that causes flu-like symptoms and is particularly fatal to children,
“In the previous three years, the average start of RSV season ranged between week seven to week nine, therefore the start of the season in 2020 is substantially delayed compared to previous years, possibly in part due to the national lockdown,” the NICD said.
In Hong Kong, which registered its first coronavirus on January 23, this year’s flu season was 63% shorter than usual while the northern hemisphere’s flu season ended about six weeks earlier than normal.
While the delay of the flu season is welcomed, there are concerns that the respiratory illness could manifest in the population as most lockdown regulations are set to be eased further.
This is a cause for concern as coronavirus cases are spreading at a rapid rate in the country, which exceeded the 100 000 mark for patients testing positive this week.
According to official statistics, flu affects more than 45 000 South Africans each year and between three and five million people worldwide.
In addition, many affected South Africans required hospitalisation for severe illness caused by flu.
This also has significant consequences for the ailing economy as scores of infected workers are absent from work as they recover.
As a significant amount of the country’s resources have been diverted to fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, which has already claimed the lives of about 2 300 people since the first case was detected in March.
A serious outbreak of colds and flu would leave the country reeling.
Since the beginning of the year, health officials have urged South Africans to get an flu vaccine.
But the huge demand has left the country in short supply.
While the NICD has said the flu vaccine is not guaranteed to prevent respiratory illness, it insists that it remains the primary means for preventing seasonal flu.
“The annual seasonal influenza vaccine contains strains corresponding antigenically, as close as possible, to the most recently circulating of the three seasonal influenza strains causing disease in human populations: Influenza A(H1N1), influenza A(H3N2) and influenza B,” the national medical institute wrote on its website.
The Lung Institute echoed the sentiments.
It said that the flu vaccine not only reduced the contraction of the respiratory illness, but those who got it were also less likely to be flagged as a potential Covid-19 case and it would decrease the need for isolation and laboratory testing.
“Vaccinating against flu, especially this year, means that you will potentially be less of a burden to the health-care system, and avoid being flagged as a possible coronavirus case,” professor and head of the division of medical virology at the University of Stellenbosch Wolfgang Preiser recently wrote in a paper for the institute.
The South African Medical Journal also agreed, adding the flu shot should be prioritised for certain individuals.
“In order to maintain the integrity of South Africa’s health-care system at a time that is likely to coincide with our winter influenza season, one important measure will be to optimise influenza vaccination of health-care workers and high-risk patients to reduce the likelihood of a ‘double hit’.”
“Adults in high-risk groups for invasive pneumococcal disease, such as those with HIV and other causes of immunosuppression, should also receive pneumococcal conjugate vaccine,” said the authors for the paper “Optimising influenza vaccination during a SARS-CoV-2 epidemic in South Africa could help maintain the integrity of our healthcare system”, which was published in the journal.
They said that as the South African flu season was expected to coincide with the country’s peak in coronavirus infections, getting a flu vaccine would aid the health-care system and the economy, if the nation managed to prevent a “double strike”.