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Deadly 'Aussie flu' a wake-up call for 'complacent' Australia logo 13/01/2018 Lara Pearce
© Rex Features

The dreaded ‘Aussie flu’ currently wreaking havoc on the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States should act as a “wake-up call” for complacent Aussies who see the flu as little worse than the common cold, the Australian Medical Association has warned.

In last year’s horror flu season, 745 Australians died in laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza – roughly four times the number of Aussies killed by the swine flu pandemic of 2009.

The H3N2 virus, an aggressive and fast-mutating strain of influenza A now dubbed the ‘Aussie flu’, accounted for more than half of all flu cases across the nation in 2017.

It’s this mutated strain that globetrotters have since transported to our northern friends. It spread to all but two UK cities in a matter of days, putting hospitals under strain and prompting some to prohibit visitors. A number of Northern Ireland churches have even banned handshakes to combat the risk of infection.

The flu has already claimed a number of lives in Ireland, Scotland and England although it’s yet to be confirmed if the H3N2 strain is responsible.

Health experts fear the denser populations of northern hemisphere cities, low immunity and a convergence of two virulent flu strains (H3N2 and a strain of influenza B) could signal the worst flu outbreak since the Hong Kong flu of 1968, which killed one million people worldwide.

Australian Medical Association Vice-President Dr Tony Bartone believes many Australians have become blasé about what remains a potentially life-threatening illness.

“Influenza is a very serious condition… it is really very debilitating,” Dr Bartone told

“(The flu) can make you feel terrible, but it also comes with other complications, including increased likelihood of hospitalisation and increased likelihood of other life-threatening diseases such as pneumonia.

“We have become complacent and last year should be a wake-up call.”

The elderly, pregnant women, young children and indigenous Australians are at a particularly high risk of contracting a severe case of the flu, with older people most at risk from the H3N2 strain.

And even though nine out of 10 flu deaths in 2017 were of people aged 65 or older, no one is immune.

On September 3 last year, an otherwise healthy young dad, Melbourne man Ben Ihlow, died from complications associated with the flu on what would have been his first Father’s Day with his baby son.

Fit and healthy Queensland teenager Madeline Jones, affectionately known as Maddy, become another young victim when her organs failed within a week of coming down with the flu while on holidays with her boyfriend in October.

Across Australia, there were more than 248,000 confirmed cases of the flu – the most cases ever recorded in a single year, and 2.5 times more than the previous year.

Even before last year’s horror season, the flu killed more Australians each year than any other vaccine-preventable disease. Despite this, the percentage of Aussies who get the flu shot is low and falling. Even where flu vaccines are government-funded, vaccination rates are critically low.

Vaccination rates in pregnant women – a high-risk group – hover at around 50 percent nation-wide and rates in the elderly, who account for the vast majority of flu deaths, are only around 75 percent.

In Western Australia, the number of parents getting their children vaccinated plummeted from 42 percent to seven percent in just four years after hundreds of children had adverse reactions to the 2010 flu shot.

One baby, Saba Button, experienced convulsions and was left profoundly disabled after being administered with the vaccine.

Monitoring of the flu shot was subsequently increased and there have been no significant adverse reactions since, but childhood flu vaccination rates haven’t recovered.

Chair of independent advocacy group the Immunisation Coalition, Professor Paul Van Buynder said Australia’s flu vaccination rates are “terrible” compared to other nations such as the United States, where flu vaccines are recommended for everyone, not just vulnerable groups.

“We’ve got astonishingly good child vaccine rates. It’s about 94 percent and we work really hard to make sure it stays that way, but our flu coverage is terrible and we don’t have the same focus on making sure it gets better,” he said.

“We need to get more elderly people vaccinated and not accept a vaccination rate of 75 percent.”

Professor Van Buynder also wants flu shots to be made available for free to all Australian children.

“Children are the super spreaders; they’re the ones who share it with everybody else,” he explained.

“So if you vaccinate children, then you’ll stop the spread in the community.”

The low effectiveness of the 2017 flu shot compared to previous years was in part to blame for last year’s high death toll, health authorities have admitted. That was highlighted when ACT mother-of-two Jennifer Thew died from complications associated with the flu in September, despite getting the jab.

According to the Department of Health, the vaccine was only 33 percent effective overall, while its effectiveness among the elderly was even lower.

The aggressive H3N2 flu is not a new strain, but it’s believed it mutated during Australia’s winter flu season, rendering it more resistant to the already-prepared flu shot.

While some British media has pointed the finger at Australia for sending the deadly H3N2 strain to the UK, Dr Bartone said it’s virtually impossible to prevent the seasonal transfer of influenza strains between hemispheres.

“It’s only transmissible by respiratory droplet spread, so you need to have someone sneezing or coughing onto their hands or surfaces or inhaling respiratory droplets. So unless you seal your borders completely, you cannot prevent that,” he explained.

Instead of pointing fingers, medical authorities want the focus to be on minimising the severity of whatever flu strains do arrive.

Clinical Professor at Westmead Clinical School, Dominic Dwyer, said this comes down to increasing vaccination rates, improving the overall health of the community and “good old-fashioned hygiene measures”.

“The circulation of influenza is not just about the virus – what type it is – but how crowded people are, how well vaccinated the population is, how good the vaccination is, how healthy everybody is, all of those sorts of things influence how much a virus will spread in a big city,” Dr Dwyer told

Two new “super vaccines” – one containing four times the usual dose and another designed to boost a patient’s natural immune response – are currently in development, but it is yet to be confirmed whether they’ll be available in time for the 2018 flu season.

But if they aren’t available in time, that’s no reason not to get the jab, Dr Bartone said.

“The only proven way to protect yourself against influenza is to have the vaccination,” he said.

“The vaccination last year was not as effective in terms of its composition as previous years, but it still did provide some protection. Even if you did contract influenza, it reduced the likelihood of any complications or hospitalisations.”

Even if you’re not concerned for yourself, you should spare a thought for those around you who may be more vulnerable, such as aging parents or grandparents and young children, Dr Bartone said.

“It’s not just about you soldiering on and you being tough; it’s about who else in your family you come into contact with.”

Influenza strains can rapidly mutate while the flu shot takes months to develop in sufficient quantities, meaning vaccinating against the flu remains largely a guessing game, Professor Dwyer said.

The H3N2 strain mutates even more rapidly than its less virulent counterparts, making it even harder to fight.

“The Holy Grail is to have an effective vaccine that covers all influenza viruses, but the trouble is that we haven’t got that yet,” Professor Dwyer said.

“Therefore our vaccines are based on what we have available and what viruses are around. So we haven’t got that holy grail of a highly effective vaccine.”

While it’s impossible to predict just how severe Australia’s 2018 flu season will be, the message from medical experts is clear: your best shot at having a flu-free winter is to get the jab.

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