Flu cases drop to zero as Covid measures cut transmission
But experts fear drop in immunity may pave way for major influenza epidemic next winter
Not a single case of influenza have been recorded in England for the past seven weeks - but the country may pay for the lull with more severe outbreaks next winter, scientists are warning.
Public Health England flu expert Dr Vanessa Saliba told The Independent that the current record-low flu infection rates are “likely due to changes in our behaviour, such as social distancing, face coverings and hand washing, as well as the reduction in international travel” during the Covid-19 pandemic.
She also credited increased uptake in the flu vaccine, saying this season’s immunisation programme is on track to be “the most successful ever”.
Along with Covid measures, some experts believe that another “possible explanation” for the massive drop in flu cases is that the coronavirus “has essentially muscled aside” other bugs that are more common in autumn and winter, according to the Associated Press. Although “scientists don’t fully understand the mechanism” behind this process, they say it would “be consistent with patterns seen when certain flu strains predominate over others”.
Whatever the explanation, flu has also “virtually disappeared” in the US, the news agency reports. Lynnette Brammer of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that nationally, “this is the lowest flu season we’ve had on record”.
Other countries including China, South Africa and Australia have recorded unusually low levels of infections too.
However, scientists fear that falling immunity levels to flu - normally boosted by seasonal circulation of the virus - may result in a “dramatic resurgence” in cases further down the line, The Telegraph reports.
“If I had to gamble on it then I would guess that we are likely to get a more severe epidemic in the coming winter - assuming restrictions are fully lifted by then,” said John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
The current low infection rates also “makes predicting which strain will hit us next and - crucially - deciding which vaccine to produce much more difficult”, adds the paper.
And “similarly high levels” of other viruses “might also be expected” after Covid restrictions are lifted, Edmunds said. “The combination could well mean that winter pressures on the NHS might be particularly bad next year,” he warned.