The most recent weekly influenza intelligence reports that flu and other respiratory virus activity is still ‘unseasonably low’ for this time of winter and that hospitalisations for severe acute respiratory illnesses (mainly due to non-flu viruses) are also low but starting to increase.
Health Minister David Clark released statistics today showing that more than 1.29 million doses of influenza vaccine had been distributed to date. He said despite the later start to the programme this year, which for the first time is offering a quadrivalent vaccine covering all four major seasonal influenza viruses circulating globally, around 100,000 more doses had been distributed compared to the same time last year.
He said it was not too late for people at greater risk of influenza to be vaccinated as it took up to two weeks for the vaccine to provide full protection, and influenza rates usually increased to winter levels during July.
Anecdotally demand has been very high for the vaccine this year with the health sector gearing up for a potentially tough winter after a severe northern hemisphere season which saw the UK’s Public Health England reporting that the 2017-18 flu season put the most pressure on GPs since the 2010-11 winter and led to very high admission rates to hospital and intensive care services and a much higher mortality rate. The New Zealand flu vaccine for 2018 was updated to cover the predominant northern hemisphere strains.
Dr Lance Jennings, a Christchurch virologist and member of the National Influenza Strategy Group (NISG), said both the ESR report and the recent Canterbury Flu Group report indicate that influenza activity is unseasonably low in New Zealand at present.
“Virus identifications so far this year give us no hint of what viruses will circulate,” said Jennings who is currently out of the country. “It is too early to predict which virus or viruses are likely to be dominant, although the increased H1N1pdm09 activity in South Africa mentioned in the ESR report certainly suggests we should watch that country over the next few weeks, especially for any severity markers. Australia is also indicating that flu activity is unseasonably low.”
This year for the first time New Zealand has joined the online FluTracking initiative with more than 3500 New Zealanders signed up since it was launched two months ago.
Dr Caroline McElnay, the Ministry of Health’s Director of Public Health, said she was thrilled by the uptake and hoped many more people would sign up as the more involved would increase the Ministry’s understanding of seasonal influenza activity.
The simple online initiative sends a weekly email asking people to report whether they or other members of their household have had a fever or cough that week. It also asks people whether they are vaccinated.
“FluTracking is already providing useful information, which matches our existing surveillance systems around New Zealand, and it enables people to be actively involved in monitoring influenza-like illness here.
“We will also soon have results from a study the Ministry commissioned about a wide range of other complementary data sources, including over-the-counter medicine sales, school and work absenteeism, Healthline calls and online search behaviour for health information to determine if they could be used as inputs of early warning systems for influenza that may prove useful as early indicators of potential outbreaks,” said McElnay.
She said influenza is a significant public health issue in New Zealand with some people becoming so unwell they need hospital care. On average 400 people die from influenza, or complications relating to it, each year.
“It’s very worthwhile to consider alternative ways of understanding influenza trends so that we can be better prepared for this highly contagious disease.”