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Social distancing could have major impact on upcoming flu season

Posted at 6:34 PM, Aug 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-18 18:34:06-04

As summer winds down, doctors across the country are warning flu season is fast approaching. Many are watching Australia to see what may happen here when flu season arrives.

"Where Australia is obviously in the Southern Hemisphere, they're in winter while we’re in summer. We look at their flu season as kind of a six-month predictor of how ours is going to turn out," says Dr. Kenny Banh, the assistant dean of undergraduate medical education at UCSF-Fresno.

The number of flu cases in Australia has taken a dramatic dip compared to last year. Dr. Banh says it's unclear if the U.S.'s flu rates will be as low as Australia's.

A lot of it has to do with coronavirus precautions that people are taking, Banh hypothesizes.

"That's what we predict. It's not really so much a change in vaccination rates as much as the social distancing and all the preventative steps of coronavirus that are having the same effect of spreading any disease, including influenza," says Dr. Banh.

Doctors say strict measures in Australia to protect people from COVID-19, such as physical distancing, wearing masks and hand washing, have helped prevent the spread of the virus and, incidentally, the flu. Now, some are wondering whether the United States will also see a drop in flu cases this winter.

"Seeing that they have a drop in influenza, we will certainly have a small influenza season. The issue is Australia is approaching, and the U.S. is approaching coronavirus very different. Their rates are different and they have a much lower per capita infection rate than we have in the U.S. for various reasons," says Dr. Banh.

Australia has taken a broader, nationwide approach to protecting people against COVID-19, unlike in the United States, where each state has implemented different restrictions. That's one reason why Dr. Tanya Altmann with the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends every person, 6 months of age and older, gets a flu vaccine.

"I think this winter, it may be hard to differentiate between the flu and COVID-19 because so many of the symptoms-- cough, fever, aches, chills, are very similar. So by getting the flu vaccine and decreasing the chance your child has influenza, that will help us figure it out," says Dr. Altmann.

Dr. Banh says Australia's plummeting flu rates and nationwide protective measures from COVID-19 will hopefully encourage many here in the United States to take the necessary precautions to keep everyone as healthy as possible this winter.

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Data from The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.