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Pathologists’ Influenza Warning To Kiwis – “Flu Season Is Already Here”

Pathologists are warning kiwis that flu season has arrived early this year, and now is the time to get vaccinated, to be aware of symptoms, and to stay home if influenza is suspected.

Influenza (flu) is a contagious acute viral infection that spreads via particle droplets produced by sneezing and coughing.1

Pathologists are urging the public, particularly vulnerable populations, to get vaccinated for the 2024 flu season, as it has already arrived.

Microbiologist and Pathology Awareness Aotearoa ambassador Dr Juliet Elvy said, “More often than not, people don't think about flu until they have fallen ill with flu, and then it's too late to get the vaccine because there’s no time for immunity to develop, and the risk of becoming very sick is increased.”

Dr Juliet Elvy- Microbiologist & Pathology Awareness Aotearoa ambassador (Supplied)

She continued, "This is particularly important for vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women and people living with chronic conditions, who may be at higher risk of bacterial super infections following influenza, such as pneumococcal disease and group A streptococcus, making the health risks to these vulnerable groups even greater. The flu vaccine reduces the risk of serious infection and complications for all."

A total of 10,165 influenza cases were detected across Aotearoa last year (2023) by the World Health Organisation’s National Influenza Centres (WHO NIC), with influenza A representing 63.2%, and influenza B 36.8% of all influenza cases.2

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This is a 43% increase compared to the previous year (2022), when a total of 7,080 influenza viruses were reported by WHO NIC.3

Vaccination remains the most effective tool in combating serious infections and overall spread of influenza.

Annual vaccination for influenza is recommended due to long-term protection against the virus waning year-on-year.

Dr Juliet Elvy emphasised the critical importance of early vaccination "It takes a few weeks post-vaccination for protection to develop, so it is important to get vaccinated against influenza as soon as possible in order to lower the risk of contracting flu and becoming seriously unwell. “

She warned, “Historically, the flu season kicks off in May, but throughout the month of April we have already seen influenza in a big way across New Zealand in our communities and hospitals.

While the borders were closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, influenza cases plummeted, but now with increased international travel and less immunity built up over time, influenza is spreading at a much more rapid rate.”

Influenza symptoms can include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, blocked or runny nose, muscle aches, joint pain, headaches, fatigue, and specifically in children, symptoms of nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea can be common.1

If a person suspects they have flu, the health advice is to rest and isolate, especially from vulnerable populations, along with practicing handwashing and cough etiquette to stop the spread.

According to Dr Elvy, the recommended testing modality for influenza for more severely unwell, hospitalised patients is a molecular test such as multiplex PCR due to its ability to test for a number of infections at once, including other respiratory infections such as RSV and COVID-19 which can present in a similar way.

She added, “Specific antiviral treatments, such as Tamiflu, can limit the severity of influenza and are available to severely unwell patients admitted to hospital.”

The influenza vaccine is free in New Zealand for people who are 65 and over, pregnant, have a mental illness or addiction, have a long-term condition such as asthma, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease, and those under four years who have been hospitalised due to a respiratory illness in the past.4

Kiwis who do not qualify for the funded vaccine have the option to pay a fee for the flu vaccine through GPs, pharmacists, and other private immunisation providers.

Dr Elvy said, “I’m concerned that Aotearoa could have quite a big flu season this year if vaccination isn’t high enough, particularly among vulnerable groups, in addition to having lower immunity across our communities because we've had less influenza circulating over the last couple of years.

Our hospitals and healthcare systems will struggle to cope with a big flu season. Steps such as early vaccination and adhering to respiratory illness best practices, should be followed by all to keep our vulnerable communities safe. Flu season is already here.”

International studies indicate that large influenza seasons are predicted in the coming years following the lighter flu seasons experienced when isolation measures were taken against COVID-19. Therefore higher influenza vaccination is necessary to reduce the projected increase in disease burden.5






5. 16. Lee K, Jalal H, Raviotta JM, Krauland MG, Zimmerman RK, Burke DS, et al. Estimating the Impact of Low Influenza Activity in 2020 on Population Immunity and Future Influenza Seasons in the United States. Open Forum Infectious Diseases. 2022;9(1).

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