Q. Can we fight flu at the same time as COVID-19?
A. This year it is more important than ever to fight flu. Many of the same tactics that stop COVID-19 transmission also work against influenza.
Flu season is right around the corner, and public health experts are worried. Americans are being encouraged to get their flu shots now. The goal is to prevent double trouble: influenza on top of COVID-19. They don’t want people to have to fight flu and COVID-19 at the same time.
We would not discourage anyone from getting a flu vaccination. There is, however, a good chance that if we follow public health guidelines to avoid COVID-19, we might also be able to avoid a bad flu season. What we should do is avoid crowds, wear face masks, stay home if we get sick and wash our hands. These are simple but effective tactics against any infection.
That’s what happened in the Southern Hemisphere between March and September. Our spring and summer is their fall and winter. That is when influenza strikes hard down under.
This year, though, the flu season was exceptionally mild. Countries like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile and Argentina were preparing themselves for a challenging time with two nasty respiratory infections at once. To everyone’s surprise, the flu never materialized.
New Zealand screened for influenza starting in June. They found no cases. Normally, more than half of their samples would be positive for the flu.
Australia also experienced record low levels. In 2019, the country had more than 130,000 identified cases of influenza. In 2020, by contrast, there were only 315. Deaths from the flu were dramatically lower – only 4% of last year’s total.
What explains this good news? It seems that measures taken to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 also help control the spread of influenza. When people don’t travel, avoid large crowds, wear face masks and wash their hands conscientiously, they might be able to avoid a variety of transmissible viral infections.
Although such tactics are new to western societies, people in Japan, China and many other Asian countries have been practicing them for years. It has been suggested that people in Japan adopted face masks during the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918. That pandemic was devastating, killing nearly 400,000 people. During the height of flu season, nearly 1 in 3 Japanese people wears a mask, which is considered a signal of respect for others.
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