Bad flu seasons could be avoided with strong vaccination coverage after borders are reopened

Just 194 notifications of influenza were reported to ACT Health between January and October last year, down from 3936 notifications in 2019. Picture: Shutterstock
Just 194 notifications of influenza were reported to ACT Health between January and October last year, down from 3936 notifications in 2019. Picture: Shutterstock

Australia will avoid significant flu seasons while its international borders remain shut, and experts believe strong vaccination rates could mean years with large numbers of flu infections become a thing of the past.

Professor Mary-Louise McLaws, a UNSW epidemiologist who advises the World Health Organisation, said bad flu seasons in Australia could be over for good if vaccination rates remain high.

"We could be seeing very few deaths every year of little kids and the elderly, because it does happen. When we hear stories of a young child die or a pregnant woman with complications, we're horrified but we don't realise that this can happen every year," Professor McLaws said.

"I think the Australian population are learning that vaccinations are for the public good."

Professor McLaws said seasonal flu stopped being infectious between seven or eight days after the onset of symptoms, meaning most cases would be caught in 14-day quarantine designed to stop COVID-19 entering Australia.

"Without the human movement and with the travellers going into quarantine for 14 days, you do reduce the likelihood of the spread," she said.

After the border restrictions were removed, it would be important to promote vaccine uptake among communities who had grown complacent to the risks of a bad flu season.

"I hope the appreciation by the Australian public that they haven't seen influenza circulating and that when they're offered their flu vaccine, around the time of their COVID vaccine, that they'll take it up," she said.

ACT Pathology deputy executive director Associate Professor Karina Kennedy said closing international borders had been the biggest contributor to a near non-existent flu season in the ACT.

"It shows that if you do close borders, you probably can eradicate flu," Professor Kennedy said.

Just 194 notifications of influenza were reported to ACT Health between January and October last year, down from 3936 notifications in 2019.

More than 180 notifications were made by the beginning of May, meaning most flu cases were found before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia.

Professor Kennedy said if the federal government kept international borders closed, Australia would probably avoid a flu season this winter.

She said seasons could be variable and influenza would return from the northern hemisphere once borders were opened.

"So if they're circulating and their strain changes a bit, and we haven't had it for a few years, we might have a big flu season in a few years when we start to open the borders again," Professor Kennedy said.

She said the Melbourne-based World Health Organisation lab monitoring flu would advise on vaccine adjustments in response to strains emerging overseas.

Professor Chris Burrell, the head of infectious diseases laboratories at the University of Adelaide, said after widespread COVID-19 vaccination coverage was reached, the question would turn to which restrictions could remain as a matter of course.

He said some changes would complement vaccinations as a means to limit the spread of influenza.

"I think we'll just have to see how that unfolds. Some of the measures in place now are incredibly restricting and we can't continue them forever," Professor Burrell said.

"Some of the others - like just observing a bit more distancing and so on - perhaps they will become a little bit more a way of life for us."

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This story Border closures will head off another flu season, experts say first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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