For the first time in almost two years, South Africa is experiencing an influenza (flu) outbreak, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) confirmed on Wednesday.
The last time a concerted flu-season warning was issued was in June 2019. In July 2020, there was only one flu case recorded in the country.
But influenza has been largely overshadowed by a deadlier Covid-19 pandemic.
For 36 years, the annual flu season started in July, or sometimes as early as April.
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The NICD said last year the reason the flu season never kicked in was likely due to hygiene and social distancing measures attributed to preventing Covid-19.
This phenomenon was not just observed in South Africa, but around the world.
Flu season starting late
From the end of August, the NICD began to report a steady increase in flu cases, with a spike in November, some cases which have even resulted in hospitalisation.
Clusters of flu cases are being reported in schools and in the workplace.
At the end of August, 68 cases were observed, but in November, 226 cases of influenza have already been reported.
The most common subtype is influenza B Victoria.
However strange it is to live with flu again, the NICD said numbers are low when compared to previous years.
“The increase in influenza in the summer, which is not the typical time for the influenza season, is likely the result of relaxation of non-pharmaceutical interventions to control COVID-19, combined with an immunity gap due to influenza not circulating for two years (2020 and 2021) in South Africa (as a result of these interventions),” NICD Centre for Respiratory Diseases and Meningitis (CRDM) head, Professor Cheryl Cohen, explained.
Flu is still dangerous
Flu is, however, not to be messed with, as it can still cause severe illness.
Before the outbreak of Covid-19, the World Health Organization estimated that flu epidemics made as many as five million severely ill, and caused up to 650,000 deaths.
In South Africa, flu killed up to 11,000 people every year.
“Although the majority of people with influenza will present with mild illness, influenza may cause severe illness, which may require hospitalisation or cause death, especially in individuals who are at risk of getting severe influenza complications,” CRDM medical epidemiologist Dr Sibongile Walaza said.
People particularly at risk of complications due to flu include pregnant women, those with HIV, chronically ill patients, the elderly, and children under two.
It is highly recommended that these groups seek medical help as early as possible.
The best way to prevent contracting seasonal influenza is to get a flu vaccine, which is usually administered from March to April.
But because this year’s flu season is not following traditional patterns, vulnerable groups can still receive their flu shots.
If you are feeling sick, adhere to the following rules:
- Stay home
- Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing,
- Wear your mask,
- Sanitise your hands regularly
- Do not touch your mouth, eyes and nose, and
- Clean and disinfect common places.