Cold, flu wave ‘not Covid’, health specialists say as high alert issued

IN MARCH 2022 President Cyril Ramaphosa advised people to stop wearing masks when outdoors, but now they are back in full force as flu cases rise. Picture: Doctor Ngcobo/Independent Media

IN MARCH 2022 President Cyril Ramaphosa advised people to stop wearing masks when outdoors, but now they are back in full force as flu cases rise. Picture: Doctor Ngcobo/Independent Media

Published May 5, 2024


ALTHOUGH the official cold and flu season has not officially arrived, reports and evidence of symptoms are widespread across the country, and health experts have cautioned safety as people struggle to shake them off.

According to the Department of Health, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) was at peak circulation, and flu infections were starting to increase, but, they added, it was not Covid, despite rumours circulating far and wide.

Spokesperson Foster Mohale said while Covid-19 continued to circulate at low levels, news currently circulating on social media was old fake news about the Covid-19 Omicron XBB variant.

“The department notes with concern the fake news advising people to wear face masks because of an alleged deadly and not easy to detect variant.

“There is no need for the public to panic because many people have developed some level of immunity from both vaccines and infections. The current strain or variant in circulation is less severe and less transmissible,” Mohale said.

The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said they had a surveillance system that monitored the circulation of respiratory viruses throughout the country, and as such had notified the department of the country being at the peak season of RSV, which could be confused by some with Covid-19 or SARS-CoV-2 because of common symptoms.

“The RSV virus causes illness mainly in young children, but also contributes to respiratory illness in older individuals. Influenza season usually follows RSV, and we are starting to see an increase in cases.”

While most diseases caused by influenza were mild the current virus could cause severe illness and even death, particularly in individuals with conditions placing them at high risk of severe disease, the NICD said.

But, said Dr Paul Roux, although the flu season was expected to start soon, the ongoing wave was not to be ignored as it not only affected a wide range of people, but it also lingered longer than normal.

“People have been presenting with worrying symptoms, among them night chills, insistent coughing, niggling throat irritation, sweating, and congestion, and while we advise them to take ordinary treatment, we have seen that this is proving harder to treat,” he said.

This as people young and old and across the country have reported that they were struggling to shake the symptoms off as fast as they normally did and within the normal week.

Said one Johannesburg school teacher: “We were forced to send learners home in their numbers last week, and a lot of teachers were also complaining of feeling weak and being unable to carry their duties out. And the number of people who arrive to school with masks on is reminiscent of Covid times.”

Classes were filled with the sounds of coughing, sneezing, wheezing and “a lot of complains of painful bodies and aching ribs,” Centurion primary school teacher Siphiwe Mahlangu said.

Roux said many patients reported that they did not sleep well at night, and no matter what medication they took, they struggled to get over symptoms that normally disappeared after a few days.

Saying bed rest and isolation, constant hydration and safety were important at this time, medical epidemiologist, Dr Phumzile Sibanda put the increase of the ongoing infection rate down to relaxed caution levels and a wearing off of Covid-19 fever.

“South Africa is just coming off a strict regime imposed on our bodies and minds during the Covid-19 period. It was bound to happen, difficult though it may be. The recent unexpected cold and wet spell experienced across the country carried with it virus and bacteria, and because it was much earlier than the cold season was expected, we went into shock.”

The health system was not ready, and neither was the general population, she said, and as such, this weakened the natural defence system. “This is especially so because one day hot temperatures were experienced, and the next it was freezing.

Sibanda said rumours of a threatened lockdown also caused panic and psychological manipulation. “As a country, we need to emphasise on being cautious, acting immediately symptoms start, taking plenty of rest, keeping hydrated, warm and really just treating ourselves with care.”

Colds and flu were contagious by their nature, so preventative measures had to be in place, no matter what the season. “A level of isolation for those who present with flu-like symptoms, ensuring they cover their noses and mouths when coughing or sneezing, staying at home and refraining from touching, sharing cups and eating utensils, kissing and hugging will help to avoid infection and re-infection.”

Sibanda also said the country’s health system was geared more to treat than it was to prevent, and so even healthcare workers did not play the part they could in avoiding colds and flu.

“People travelling by public transport, standing shoulder to shoulder at shops, sitting together in class, and even in the home, need to understand how fast virus and bacteria travel,” she said.

Without this intimate knowledge, people stood the chance not only of infecting others, but of being sicker for longer.

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