Health experts are warning the flu this winter could be a bad one. With more time spent indoors when out in public, it’s likely that COVID-19 infections will rise again and, for the first time in two years, Australia should expect widespread cases of the influenza virus.
The possibility of a surge in both the flu and COVID-19 this winter has resulted in some interesting names including the ‘twindemic’, ‘syndemic’ and ‘flurona’. There have been confirmed cases of people being infected with both the flu and COVID-19 at the same time in multiple states of Australia.
Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2, COVID-19) mimics the flu virus with similar symptoms. However, they are two different viruses. Unfortunately, vaccination or previous infection of one virus provides no protection from being infected by the other virus.
Vaccinations for Flu and COVID-19
Some Australians wrongly assume that their COVID-19 vaccinations will provide some protection against becoming seriously ill from any respiratory virus. However, this is not the case. COVID-19 vaccines provide protection against the COVID-19 virus and the flu vaccination protects against the influenza virus.
Vaccination for COVID-19
The vast majority of the Australian population over the age of 16 is now double or triple vaccinated against COVID-19. Our vaccination rates are some of the highest in the world and are credited with keeping our hospitalisation and ICU rates relatively low. Australia has one of the lowest death rates from COVID-19 in the world because it kept its borders closed until the majority of the population could be vaccinated.
Australian health experts recommend that everyone over the age of five has the COVID-19 vaccination.
Vaccinations for Flu
In comparison to the high COVID-19 vaccination rates, the number of Australians who receive the flu vaccine each year is a much smaller percentage.
In 2020, a record number of Australians were vaccinated against the flu. However, in 2021, flu vaccination numbers were just over half of what they were the year before, as people were getting their COVID-19 jabs instead. Public health messages are advising all Australians over the age of six months to have a flu vaccination before cases begin to rise ahead of the winter peak.
Who is Most At Risk of Flu?
For most people, the flu is fairly mild yet still worse than the common cold. Symptoms come on fast and usually include one or more of the following - cough, fever/chills, sore throat, runny nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, tiredness, vomiting and diarrhoea. The symptoms usually last three or four days to more than one week. Young, healthy adults and older children usually recover quickly, but a small number of people develop a complication from the flu virus. This is most commonly pneumonia, but inflammation of the heart, brain, muscle tissue and organ failure can occur.
The Australian Government lists these groups of people as being at high risk of health complications from the flu and should have the flu vaccination every year to protect themselves:
Those aged 65 years and over.
Children aged 6 months to 5 years.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged over 6 months.
Anyone over the age of 6 months living with a medical condition such as:
- Cardiac disease
- Chronic respiratory disease
- Diabetes or other metabolic disorder
- Immunocompromising condition
- Renal disease
- Haematological disorder
- Children between 6 months and 10 years on long term aspirin therapy
Young Children at Risk
Since the pandemic began, parents have been reassured that COVID-19 is less severe in young children compared to adults; however the same can’t be said for the flu.
During bad flu seasons in Australia, otherwise healthy young children have died from the virus. Before COVID-19, influenza was the leading cause of hospitalisation of children under the age of five for vaccine preventable disease. Very young children are especially vulnerable this year because their immune system has never been exposed to the flu virus.
Of those children who are hospitalised with the flu, up to 10% can develop neurological problems including memory loss, seizures, learning and speech difficulties.
Free Flu Vaccines
Flu shots are included in the National Immunisation Program (NIP) Schedule, so they are provided free of charge to those people who are most at risk.
Many Australian workers are eligible for a free flu shot through their employer. Paying for the cost of the flu vaccine for workers has a high return on investment as a worker struck down with a case of the flu may need four to five days off work to recover. Plus, there’s the risk of them passing on the highly contagious virus to colleagues before they display symptoms.
Those Australians with Health Insurance Extras cover may be eligible to claim the cost of their vaccination. HIF offers free flu vaccinations for every member with an Extras policy.
People can be infected by the influenza virus at any time of the year, but Australia’s peak flu season is between July and September. The cooler weather and more time spent indoors means we’re more at risk of being infected with colds and flus than during the warmer months.
With the international borders closed for the past two winters, Australia has had very little flu virus circulating in the community. In February 2020, just before Australia closed its borders, there were 7,000 cases of flu reported compared to February 2022 when only 22 cases of flu were reported.
Now that the borders are open, it’s expected that travellers will bring the flu into Australia from the northern hemisphere in far greater numbers than previous years.
People’s natural immunity to the flu will be low as so few Australians have had the flu during the last two seasons. Vaccination rates for the flu were low last year, as it became evident that little-to-no flu virus was circulating in the community and Australians were focused on getting their first and second dose of the COVID-19 vaccination.
Worst Flu Seasons
Australia suffered its worst flu season on record in 2019, with over 300,000 cases by the end of October. The number of cases was 80% higher than 2018 and 17% higher than 2017.
In 2019, more than 950 people died from influenza after having the illness confirmed in a lab, but the true toll is thought to be thousands each year.
FAQs About The Flu Vaccine
Is There a Wait Time Between Vaccines?
During the initial rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, Australian health experts recommended waiting at least seven days between having a COVID-19 vaccine and any other. That advice has now changed and it’s safe to have a COVID-19 and flu vaccination on the same day.
Does a Flu Vaccine Provide Protection for 12 Months?
The recommendation is to have the flu vaccination every 12 months (usually before winter), but the efficacy of the flu vaccine can wear off within three months. So, your chance of being infected with the flu increases with every month after the first quarter. However, as the weather warms up there is usually less flu circulating in the community, therefore less risk of being infected. The flu virus mutates every year, so the vaccine changes slightly based on the virus that was most prevalent in the northern hemisphere during our summer.
How Can I Get a Free Flu Vaccine Through My HIF Extras Cover?
If you aren’t at high risk and eligible for a free flu vaccine through the National Immunisation Schedule, you can book an appointment at your local pharmacy or GP for your annual flu vaccine and ask for a receipt.
Use the receipt to make a claim up to the value of $20 through the Pharmacy Benefit on any HIF Extras policy excluding Vital Options. Read more about how to make an Extras claim here.
Is There More Than One Type of Flu Vaccine?
Yes, there are multiple types of flu vaccine. People aged over 65 years have a different vaccine to younger adults. Children have a different vaccine to adults and seniors.
In the first year of having a flu vaccine, children less than nine years of age are recommended to have two doses at least one month apart. After the first year, children only need one annual dose.
Are There Any Mandates for the Flu Vaccine?
If you complete any work in an aged care facility or visit an aged care resident, it’s likely you will need to show proof of a flu vaccination to enter the premises to keep vulnerable residents safe.
Is the Flu as Contagious as COVID-19?
While the flu is a contagious virus, it isn’t as contagious as COVID-19. Most people are contagious from one day before flu symptoms begin and stay contagious for five to seven days after feeling sick. Children and people with weak immune systems may be contagious for longer.
What Else Can I Do to Protect Against the Flu?
The pandemic has increased our awareness of how to avoid contagious illnesses. Hand hygiene is one of the best ways of staying safe. Our fingers pick up bacteria and viruses from surfaces we touch. The virus enters the body if your contaminated fingers then touch your nose, mouth or eyes. Wash your hands regularly and try to remember not to touch your face before washing.
Like COVID-19, small particles of the flu virus can float in the air and be breathed in. Avoiding crowded or poorly ventilated areas will reduce your risk of infection. Open the windows and doors if a household member is sick and clean high touch surfaces regularly.
If you have any queries about COVID-19 vaccines and/or flu vaccines, speak to your GP.