In Depth

Coronavirus: how the pandemic may be reducing flu risk

Experts report hopes of ‘silver lining’ as influenza season appears to wane earlier than usual

The Covid-19 coronavirus has brought misery worldwide but the pandemic may have at least one positive health outcome: social-distancing measures appear to have cut short the flu season.

EU data and other research suggests that “influenza, which each year kills hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, all but vanished in Europe last month as coronavirus lockdowns slowed transmission”, reports Reuters.

The winter flu season normally runs from October to mid-May in the northern hemisphere. But Holger Rabenau, virologist at the Frankfurt University Hospital, told the news agency: “The flu season ended earlier than usual this year and this is probably due to the measures taken regarding Sars-CoV-2, such as social distancing and mask wearing.”

Although final figures for European flu deaths are not yet available, “early estimates point to much lower mortality this year”, says Reuters.

Data from 11 European countries shows that 4,000 flu patients required intensive care treatment this season - around half the totals for the same periods in the previous two seasons.

However, Reuters warns that underreporting may have contributed to flu’s “apparent early demise”, adding that experts say “people with milder flu symptoms have mostly steered clear of hospitals during the Covid-19 epidemic”.

In the UK, latest provisional figures for 2020 up to 10 April from the Office for National Statistics show that the number of deaths from influenza and pneumonia have been below the five-year average in every week except one.

The total number of recorded flu and pneumonia deaths so far this year, not including those where Covid-19 was also mentioned, was 32,763 - nearly 5,700 fewer than the five-year average of 38,454 for the same period.

Countries outside Europe have also reported waning flu seasons this year.

Data from Japan’s government reveals that flu cases in the East Asian nation plunged by more than 60% year-on-year in the week to 9 February, as The Japan Times reported at the time.

“Many Japanese people have become serious about taking measures to prevent infection with the new coronavirus. This might be one of the reasons why influenza cases dropped this year,” Yoko Muramatsu, a researcher at the Tokyo-based NLI Research Institute, told the newspaper.

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In an article on The Conversation, Lauren Bloomfield, a senior lecturer at the School of Medicine, University of Notre Dame Australia, says: “Influenza and Covid-19 share some similar symptoms. They are also both spread via respiratory droplets: coughing, sneezing and touching.

“Protecting ourselves from Covid-19 through good hygiene and social distancing also means protecting ourselves from flu. This is a small silver lining in an otherwise extremely disruptive time.”

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