The 2020-21 flu season begins in October for nations in the Northern Hemisphere following the conclusion of the influenza season in the South. The question on the lips of many experts as the flu season in the north begins is, how will COVID-19 and the lockdown measures that have been put in place work out? Many medical experts have been discussing the possibility of the 2020-21 flu season being devastating for the healthcare sector in the Northern Hemisphere when combined with the ongoing problem of COVID-19. However, the data that has been compiled so far may point to a lower than average infection rate from influenza and other respiratory illnesses over the coming winter.
The Southern Hemisphere faces its winter during the middle of the year when the northern half of the planet is enjoying their summer. Although the flu season in the south is at a different time of year, data is collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. to help them assess the potential impact of flu and respiratory illnesses during the following winter.
2020 may have been described by many as a terrible year because of the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, but for the flu, it has proven a very quiet year. The CDC and the World Health Organization have been keeping a close eye on the rate of influenza moving through the Southern Hemisphere because of fears of its effects on the healthcare system in the U.S. Experts in both the U.S. and U.K. have warned of the problems that could be seen for their healthcare systems if a major flu outbreak were to be combined with the expected second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What has been seen in the Southern Hemisphere has shocked many medical experts because the flu season has been quiet compared to the usual numbers of infection recorded. The CDC has reported the low levels of infection have included three centers of flu being spread in Australia, Chile, and South Africa. One of the most shocking statistics of the 2020 flu season comes out of Australia where the influenza infection rate in the nation was just 121 cases. When comparing the infection rate to that of August 2019, Australia had an infection rate of 61,084 during that month alone.
The fact there have been so few infections of influenza in the Southern Hemisphere is being celebrated in the U.S. and other parts of the Northern Hemisphere as they head into the most dangerous times of the Fall and Winter for flu infections. Experts have been concerned about how difficult the flu season could be in the Fall of 2020 and Winter of 2021 because of the rise of COVID-19. In 2019, the flu infection rate in the U.S. alone saw around 35 million people catch the virus and need some form of treatment. This statistic does not include those individuals who suffered from the flu in 2019 and did not get tested or receive treatment.
We may look at the flu and believe it is a commonly understood medical condition that does not cause major issues, but the statistics tell a different story. Over 35 million Americans tested positive for the virus with 490,000 people being hospitalized because of the effects of the illness. A further 34,000 people died from the influenza virus or complications caused by the virus and its effects.
The main reason for the low level of infection in 2020 has been the precautions undertaken around the world to combat the effects of COVID-19. Seeing so few infections from the flu has been put down to the use of face coverings, hand sanitizer, and social distancing limiting the movement of germs from one person to the next. Local lockdown rules have been in effect in Australia throughout 2020 with some areas being more stringent in their regulations than others. What we are being told by leaders from the WHO and CDC is the regulations from local governments are making it easier for many people to avoid the problems associated with the flu. Limiting the spread of COVID-19 is thought to be having a positive effect on the spread of influenza across the Southern Hemisphere, but this may not be repeated in the U.S. and the Northern Hemisphere.
The CDC has been reserved in its reaction to the low influenza rate in the Southern Hemisphere because of the different stages of lockdown seen in various areas of the world. In the U.S., the CDC looks to still be expecting a higher rate of infection than that in the Southern Hemisphere because the nation has already entered various stages of reopening and a relaxing of the restrictions. Both the CDC and WHO agree the rate of influenza infection would be lower if the strict lockdown rules seen in the middle of the year across the Southern Hemisphere remained in place in the North over its winter.
Among the fears of the CDC following the low influenza season across the Southern Hemisphere is the problem of low infection rates in 2020 leading to a major jump in 2021 and beyond. The CDC explains it has learned a lot from the influenza season in the Southern Hemisphere, but it remains cautious that a similarly low rate of infection will be seen in the U.S. in Fall 2020 and beyond.