THE number of reported flu cases dropped dramatically last year across Australia and New Zealand, with the increase in COVID-19 containment measures.
One of the largest crowd-sourced public health surveillance systems in the world, which detects the spread of influenza, has revealed the pandemic dramatically impacted the 2020 flu season.
According to the FluTracking system the number of laboratory confirmed flu cases in January 2021 was just one per cent of the cases seen in January 2020, prior to COVID-19 social distancing measures becoming part of daily life.
Developed by Hunter New England Health and the University of Newcastle, FluTracking started in 2006 with 400 participants. In 2020 the number of people across Australia and New Zealand providing weekly data peaked at more than 150,000.
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 July and August.
FluTracking founder Craig Dalton, a Hunter New England public health physician and Conjoint Associate Professor with the University of Newcastle and Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI), said he was shocked to see flu rates drop week by week as COVID controls were introduced.
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.
"It will be interesting to see whether these behavioural changes will continue to keep flu in check this season."
Taking only 15 seconds to complete, the weekly web-based survey collects data about flu-like symptoms to detect the potential spread of influenza.
Participants who record a symptom will be asked further questions about time absent from normal duties, visits to health care providers, results of laboratory tests for influenza or COVID-19, and current vaccine status.
Dr Dalton said FluTracking had evolved over time to help health professionals monitor seasonal influenza, pandemic influenza and now COVID-19.
"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 said.
"With FluTracking we can measure the community level impact of these diseases, capturing information about people who showed symptoms but did not consult a doctor or present for a COVID test."
Other results from the more than 2 million FluTracking surveys submitted in 2020 include:
- 85 per cent of FluTrackers were vaccinated against flu
- The age group with the highest incidence of flu-like symptoms was 0-4 years
- The most common symptom reported was coughing
- 56,201 COVID tests were reported
- FluTracking helped track health impacts of the bushfires in December 2019 and January 2020
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.