There were only 208 laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza nationwide last month – compared to 30,567 at the same time in 2019.
The major disparity follows a trend that has seen a massive decrease in cases since social distancing measures were implemented across Australia in response to the coronavirus.

In the first two months of 2020, Australia was on track to surpass its record-breaking start to 2019, before cases essentially halved in March compared with the same time last year. This was followed by an even more dramatic 98% drop in April, when only 307 laboratory-confirmed cases were recorded compared to 18,691 in the corresponding period in 2019.

Dr Kerry Hancock, Chair of the RACGP Specific Interests Respiratory Medicine network, told newsGP she was ‘incredibly surprised’ by the results and described the fall in cases as ‘dramatic’.

‘We’re seeing now in the influenza statistics the impact that [good hygiene and social distancing] can have in reducing transmission,’ she said.

‘It just tells us the value of physically distancing, good hand hygiene, avoiding mass gatherings [when sick], cough etiquette and being aware of all those other strategies to avoid the transmission of infectious diseases.

‘Maybe it’s not the way we want to spend our lives – not being able to attend concerts and the movies and gather in crowds – but it certainly shows that we can make a difference by at least implementing some of these strategies [in the longer term].

‘Once again, Australia can be really proud of the fact that we’ve done what we’ve been told to do with regard to COVID-19.’

The drop in laboratory-confirmed flu cases is matched by data in the FluTracking surveillance system, which uses crowd-sourced information from upwards of 70,000 people each week who report whether or not they are experiencing flu-like symptoms.

The most recent report, from the week ending 31 May, found flu-like illness activity in Australia is ‘historically low’, with only 0.38% of respondents having a fever and cough. It also shows almost identical rates of flu-like symptoms between those who have been vaccinated and those who have not.

Dr Evan Ackermann, past Chair of the RACGP Expert Committee – Quality Care (REC–QC), told newsGP the trend seems to support findings from the Cochrane Reviews, which stress the importance of good hygiene in limiting the spread of influenza.

‘We always used to say it but now people are living it,’ he said.

‘People in public places are not only washing their hands, but they’re quarantining when sick, and many are using a face mask when in public. It really is something that I hope is going to lead to some long-term behavioural change.

‘The vaccine doesn’t last that long – it produces an immunological response but that wanes over time. What these figures suggest is that these non-drug interventions do work.’

Dr Ackermann also said it is an important reminder to educate patients on the value of hygiene when it comes to protecting themselves against viral infection.

‘For the majority of the population, improved personal hygiene options are more likely to be effective than just receiving a flu vaccine,’ he said.

‘This has important implications in how we advise and educate our patients. The evidence suggests promoting other measures may be more beneficial among low-risk populations.’

By Matt Woodley
Published 05 Jun 2020