Coronavirus lockdowns might be delaying flu season in the southern hemisphere

A digital sign warning people to stay at home, wash their hands and remain apart from the person next to them in North Sydney's CBD on April 10, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. Photo by James D. Morgan/Getty Images

As the southern hemisphere enters its winter season, it seems like flu season is running a little behind.

Lockdowns and distancing measures are designed to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, but they might be affecting other diseases too, early data suggests.

In a report on respiratory illnesses looking at this year up to May 17, South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases noted that the 2020 influenza season has not yet started in that country and reported cases so far have been “much reduced.”

Similarly, the RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) season, another respiratory illness, has been “substantially delayed,” according to the report, “possibly in part due to the national lockdown.”

The institute notes, however, that since lockdowns started, fewer patients have enrolled in their virus surveillance programs, which may have affected numbers as well.

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READ MORE: It’s flu season. Here’s how to keep coworkers’ germs at bay

“What we do know is that bacteria and viruses do not travel independently,” said Tom Koch, an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia who specializes in disease mapping. “They arrive and are transferred by human travellers.

“I think it’s also fair to assume that policies inhibiting travel and large congregations of people in South Africa are impeding their spread.”

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The year-to-year difference is even more stark in Australia. Last year was an unusually bad year for flu in that country. In May 2019, there were 30,567 confirmed cases recorded by the national health department. In May 2020, there were just 171 so far, with just only days left in the month.

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That’s much less than even in May 2018, which had 1,717 cases, and was a somewhat lighter flu season in Australia.

Cases dropped hugely between March and April this year, as lockdowns came into effect. Australia is also making a record number of flu vaccines available for the public’s use this year, in response to reports of high demand, according to a government statement.

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In interviews with the New Scientist, Australian health experts attributed the decrease in influenza to social distancing, kids staying home from school, and improved hygiene measures like handwashing.

READ MORE: Australia is having a terrible flu season. Here’s why that matters for Canada (From June 2019)

So what does this mean for Canada?

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“It means first that this autumn, to the extent that we continue to inhibit international travel from affected countries, we can expect a delay in the introduction of these viruses,” Koch said.

“But if we have open doors with countries where the disease is present — Australia and then, later, the U.S. — we can expect the flu to be carried to Canada.”

And if we keep up physical distancing and measures like hand hygiene, there is a good chance flu season will be delayed here too, he said.

It may have already happened for the last flu season.

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The Public Health Agency of Canada said that flu season “ended abruptly” in the middle of March, right around the time that physical distancing measures were introduced.

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At the end of March, among participants in the national flu surveillance program, “the percentage of participants reporting cough and fever continue to decrease and are at the lowest levels ever observed.

“This may be due to social distancing measures implemented in recent weeks,” the agency wrote.

READ MORE: Flu shot protected most people from infection during unusual influenza season, study finds

In a press conference in late April, the WHO’s Dr. Mike Ryan noted that the world needs to pay attention to and support the southern hemisphere as it deals with two respiratory illnesses at once.

“I believe the lessons that are learnt in the experience those countries will have with potentially both diseases circulating at the same time will not only benefit their countries but will greatly benefit countries in the northern hemisphere who may face the same situation in six months’ time,” he said.

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

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To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

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