The number of influenza cases in Australian and New Zealand in 2020 was incredibly low compared to previous years, with Covid containment measures also protecting the population against flu.
The evidence is contained in a data released by the University of Newcastle in NSW, in conjunction with Hunter New England Health.
Their FluTracking project started in 2006 with only 400 participants and is now one of the largest crowd-sourced public health surveillance systems in the world for detecting the spread of influenza.
Dr Craig Dalton, FluTracking’s founder, said the number of laboratory confirmed flu cases in January 2021 was just one percent of the cases seen in January 2020, prior to Covid-19 social-distancing measures becoming part of daily life.
From 60,000 infection cases to 200
A typical flu season in Australia results in about 60,000 infections nationally in peak months. In 2020 that dropped to less than 200 cases per month in the key infection periods of July and August.
“We were shocked to see influenza rates drop week by week as Covid controls were instituted,” Dr Dalton said.
“Ask any flu expert and we would say it would not be so easy to stop flu transmission. What 2020 taught us is that physical distancing, hand washing and mask wearing can dramatically reduce the incidence of flu in the community.
“The days of turning up to work with a cold or flu are probably gone forever. Masks may become part of our winter wardrobe.”
He said it would be interesting to see whether these behavioural changes will continue to keep flu in check this coming season.
Tracked via a weekly web survey
The way FluTracking works is that a weekly web-based survey collects data about flu-like symptoms. In effect, it harnesses the power of the Internet and community spirit to detect the potential spread of influenza.
“FluTracking can fill in the gaps in information not captured by hospitals and health services. Many people with flu-like symptoms don’t enter the health system and therefore aren’t counted,” Dr Dalton explained.
In 2018, New Zealand adopted FluTracking and now has a greater community participation rate than Australia.
This year Hong Kong will take up the system, a region with a long history of influenza monitoring and research. There are plans to continue expanding FluTracking throughout the Asia-Pacific region.