The ‘triple hit’ of diseases that explains why everyone in Australia is getting sick right now

A triple attack of flu, Covid and respiratory syncytial virus – combined with falling vaccination rates – is causing huge numbers of people across Australia to fall ill.

Flu cases fell during the pandemic due to lockdowns and measures such as the widespread use of face masks.

But this has led to lower immunity and greater susceptibility to flu, with 3,696 hospital admissions and 379 deaths from flu in Australia last year.

The trend has continued this year, with more than 2,000 people coming down with flu in NSW in the week to May 11, a 16 per cent increase on the same time last year.

Covid cases are also increasing, while respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is also at high levels. RSV is one of the leading causes of lung infections in adults and children and can lead to more serious illnesses such as pneumonia or bronchiolitis.

A triple attack of flu, Covid and respiratory syncytial virus is leaving huge numbers of people sick across Australia (stock image)

‘We are now officially entering flu season, with cases expected to rise rapidly over the next six to eight weeks, so now is the time to book a flu vaccine to protect yourself and your loved ones,’ NSW Chief Health Officer Dr . said Kerry Chant.

‘This is a timely reminder for parents as we are already seeing an increase in the number of young children becoming ill with the virus.

‘The flu vaccine is readily available and free to people at higher risk of severe disease, including children aged six months to under five years of age.’

Holly Seale, associate professor at UNSW’s School of Population Health, also warned about falling vaccination rates.

β€œAlthough we are still relatively early in the 2024 flu season, only seven percent of children under the age of five have received their flu shot so far,” Dr Seale said.

‘Although young children in particular are a cause for concern, flu vaccination figures for the population as a whole appear to be lagging behind.

‘Reports show that from March 1 to April 28, 16 percent fewer people were vaccinated against the flu compared to the same period last year.’

In 2023, reported flu cases were highest in children aged five to nine, followed by children aged zero to four.

The same pattern is repeating itself this flu season, Dr. Seale wrote.

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‘Although children are more likely to catch and spread the flu, they are also at greater risk of becoming very ill from it. This is especially true for children under the age of five,” she says.

‘The flu vaccine isn’t perfect – it may not completely prevent infections – but it is absolutely our best chance for protection.

‘Research has shown that flu-related visits to the GP were more than halved in vaccinated children compared to unvaccinated children.’

She said vaccination prevents a severe reaction to the flu and reduces transmission in schools and communities, but some common misconceptions keep some parents from getting their children, or themselves, vaccinated.

β€œSome parents are reporting concerns about the vaccine, including the old dogma that it can cause the flu,” she said.

‘The flu vaccine cannot give you the flu because it does not contain live virus. Unfortunately, that myth is very persistent.’

Dr. Seale pointed out that it’s not just children who are at greater risk from the flu, and adults 65 and older are also more vulnerable.

But despite being eligible for a free vaccine, uptake among people over 65 has been slow so far this flu season.

‘We usually have about 65 percent of this group vaccinated. So far this year, about 35 percent of people over 65 have received their flu vaccine,” she said.

The flu vaccine is also free for pregnant women and anyone who has a medical condition such as heart disease, chronic lung disease, diabetes or kidney disease.

From March 1 to April 28, 16 percent fewer people were vaccinated against the flu compared to the same period last year (stock image)

From March 1 to April 28, 16 percent fewer people were vaccinated against the flu compared to the same period last year (stock image)

Previous studies have found that flu vaccine coverage for pregnant women across the country ranges from 39 percent to 76 percent, meaning that in some areas up to 60 percent of pregnant women are not getting vaccinated.

Dr. Chant said with Covid still present in the community, vaccinations are a priority, with virus activity increasing from low to moderate levels.

β€œWith all three viruses (flu, Covid and RSV) in circulation, we would also like to remind the community that people with symptoms should stay at home and wear a mask if they need to go out,” she said.

‘They should avoid visiting high-risk institutions such as hospitals, aged care facilities and disability care facilities.’

When is flu season in Australia?

Traditionally, the flu season runs from April to October, with a peak in August. However, since 2022, the flu season started earlier in March and peaked in June.

Flu cases are reported all year round, but are more common in winter. That is why this is also called the flu season.

It is believed that there is a ‘flu season’ because people spend more time indoors and in close contact with each other during the winter.

The photo shows a doctor talking to a patient

The photo shows a doctor talking to a patient

Until April 30, there were 35,580 flu reports. This is more than in the same period in 2023, when there were 32,480 reports.

Although the flu can be mild, it can also cause serious illness in otherwise healthy people, leading to hospitalization and sometimes death.

In 2023, there were 252,296 reported flu cases, but the total number of cases was likely much higher.

There were 3,696 hospital admissions due to flu, of which 256 were in intensive care.

In 2023, there were 376 flu-related deaths in Australia.

Source: Hudson Institute for Medical Research