The number of flu cases recorded in 2020 has dropped by more than 99% thanks to hygiene awareness and social distancing measures implemented due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The numbers come from the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners who has said that “there were only 208 laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza nationwide last month- compared to 30,567 at the same time in 2019.”
The RACGP says that in the first-two months of 2020, Australia was set to record more influenza cases than the previous 2019 record, up until radical hygiene and social distancing campaigns were rolled out to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Chair of the RACGP Specific Interests Respiratory Medicine network, Dr Kerry Hancock, has said she was “incredibly surprised” by the “dramatic” drop in the number of influenza cases.
“We’re seeing now in the influenza statistics the impact that [good hygiene and social distancing] can have in reducing transmission,” she said.
The RACGP’s report numbers are supported by Flu Tracking data that uses crowd-sourced information from 70,000 respondents each week. A mere 0.38% of respondents said they were experiencing flu-like symptoms, with the authors stating that “it shows almost identical rates of flu-like symptoms between those who have been vaccinated and those who have not.”
“It just tells us the value of physically distancing, good hand hygiene, avoiding mass gatherings [when sick], cough etiquette and being aware of all those other strategies to avoid the transmission of infectious diseases,” Dr Hancock said.
“Maybe it’s not the way we want to spent our lives – not being able to attend concerns and the movies and gather in crowds – but it certainly shows that we can make a difference by at least implementing some of these strategies [in the longer term].”
“Once again, Australia can be really proud of the fact that we’ve done what we’ve been told to do with regard to COVID-19.”
Previous Chair of the RACGP Expert Committee, Dr Evan Ackermann has said that “we always used to say it, but now people are living it.”
“People in public places are not only washing their hands, but they’re quarantining when sick, and many are using face masks when in public. It really is something that I hope is going to lead to some long-term behavioural change.”
“For the majority of the population, improved hygiene options are more likely to be effective than just receiving a flu vaccine,” Ackerman said. “This has important implications in how we advise and educate our patients. The evidence suggests promoting other measures may be more beneficial among low-risk populations,” he concluded.
There are, however, some doubts as to the accuracy of the headlines being thrown around by the RACGP. Two doctors specifically mentioned that testing of influenza was down, with some laboratories not testing for influenza at all, prioritising COVID-19 testing.
Dr John Lawson added in the comments section of the RACGP’s release that “whilst I have no doubt that social distancing has contributed to lower rates, I am absolutely certain that pathology labs changing all resp[iratory] virus PCR tests to COVID tests also has an impact on the amount of detected cases… the statistics are flawed,” he said.
Dr Emilie Larkin added that “GPs were specifically told not to test for influenza and indeed some labs were actually not running the test at all for a period of time. It is therefore difficult to make an accurate comparison between years given access to testing was very different.”
“I am surprised there is no mention of this in the article,” Dr Larkin concluded.