September 15, 2020 — An epidemiologist said Monday that face masks and other measures used to curb the coronavirus’ spread have helped drive a lower-than-normal influenza rate in the Southern Hemisphere.
“The things we were doing for COVID are working for the flu,” said Carlos del Rio, MD, a distinguished professor of medicine, epidemiology, and global health and executive associate dean of Emory University School of Medicine at Grady Health System. “The reality is that … we are all very encouraged by the small number of cases in the Southern Hemisphere.”
Del Rio, speaking at a virtual media conference about flu season, said he hopes that if Americans keep up the same preventive measures for coronavirus, “we may not see the flu this season.”
The World Health Organization agrees, saying, “The various hygiene and physical distancing measures implemented by member states to reduce SARS-CoV-2 virus transmission have likely played a role in reducing influenza virus transmission.”
The flu season comes first in the Southern Hemisphere, usually starting in May or June and peaking in July or August. In the Northern Hemisphere, it normally starts in November and peaks between January and March.
As an example of the downturn in cases, The Wall Street Journal reported that Chile recorded 1,134 seasonal respiratory infections as of late July, compared with 20,949 during the same period last year.
In Australia, only 85 new laboratory-confirmed influenza cases were recorded in the last 2 weeks of June, compared with 22,047 confirmed cases in that time period in 2019, The Wall Street Journal said, citing government statistics.
Health officials in the United States have warned that a heavy flu season on top of the coronavirus pandemic could be catastrophic.
“It would be terrible to have simultaneous … epidemics,” said Walter Orenstein, MD, associate director of Emory Vaccine Center and professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine. “It would put a terrible stress on the health care industry.”
The case of a high school football coach in southern Georgia shows how dangerous the two diseases can be together. Tift County High School says on its Facebook page that its head football coach has been hospitalized with both COVID and the flu.
The school says coach Ashley Anders developed symptoms last week and was quarantined.
This one case illustrates why Orenstein and del Rio said flu shots are more important than ever because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Orenstein said in “a good year,” the flu vaccine is 40-60% effective. The flu vaccine for the 2019-20 season was about 38% effective, he said.
“It’s still a lot better than zero percent, which is the effect of no vaccine,” he said.