Shocking flu season tipped for Aussies

An Australian biostatistician is urging everyone to get their flu shot, as cases of the illness are well ahead of this time in 2023. Picture: iStock
An Australian biostatistician is urging everyone to get their flu shot, as cases of the illness are well ahead of this time in 2023. Picture: iStock

The forthcoming flu season is forecast to be just as bad or worse than 2023, with one-in-three people tipped to get a cold or influenza.

Flu cases are already double the weekly rate of last year’s sickly season, but one epidemiologist says it’s unclear whether cases are peaking early or climbing to record levels.

Influenza hit at least 300,000 Australians in 2023, as the illness took a hold in the freer post-covid pandemic world.

Cold and flu reports, medicine sales data, weather forecasts and vaccine rates have been used in modelling by Codral Cold & Flu in partnership with health consulting firm IQVIA.

Principal Dr Sashi Anantham said the flu season was starting much earlier than previous years.

“This year, based on the current level of medicine sales that we’re seeing, we’re expecting to see a year that is at least as potent as 2023, if not more,” Dr Anantham said.

Flu cases spiked in 2023 after the pandemic lockdowns, hygiene and social distancing measures reversed. Picture: NCA NewsWire / David Geraghty

Newcastle and Liverpool in NSW and Southport in Queensland are expected to be hardest hit, the modelling finds.

“It shouldn’t be a major concern, it is largely just an inconvenience. Time off work, kids at home from daycare and so on. It’s really about just being prepared to deal with all of that inconvenience,” Dr Anantham said.

Epidemiologists advise young, elderly, and pregnant people to get vaccinated against influenza this season. Picture: NCA NewsWire / David Crosling

University of South Australia professor of biostatistics, Adrian Esterman, said colds were difficult to track and predict, because most people did not go to the doctor for a common cold, so comprehensive data was not available.

Influenza cases were “very high at the moment” and double the weekly number for this time last year, the epidemiologist said, though the number through the flu season would be tough to predict.

Influenza cases are already starting to hit high levels. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Andrew Henshaw

“A doubling of last year (flu cases) doesn’t suggest that it will double (overall), it could be peaking early,” he said.

Retail data, such as in the modelling, was a “reasonable” marker for the cold and flu season’s severity, “but that does not tell you who has influenza, a cold or RSV (respiratory syncytial virus”, the professor said.

Multiple states introduced wide-reaching free flu vaccine schemes in 2022 and 2023. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Ian Currie

Young children, the elderly and people who were pregnant needed to be vaccinated against the flu, he said.

A good source of data for influenza-like-illnesses was the Australian Sentinel Practices Research Network, Mr Esterman said. The network of GPs and registered nurses reports influenza-like-illnesses and publishes fortnightly reports.

However, the latest data is only up until February 1. An ASPREN spokeswoman said March data should have been publicly available, but then did not respond to a request for the latest report.

The nation’s cold & flu capitals:

1. Newcastle, NSW

2. Liverpool, NSW

3. Southport, QLD

4. Blacktown, NSW

5. Hornsby, NSW

6. Hurstville, NSW

7. Hillarys, WA

8. Tamworth, NSW

9. Orange, NSW

10. Fremantle, WA

Areas forecast for most cold and flu symptoms:

NSW: Newcastle, Liverpool, Blacktown

Queensland: Southport, Cairns, Hervey Bay

South Australia: Clovelly Park, Torrensville, Seaford

Tasmania: Launceston, Lindisfarne, Sandy Bay

Victoria: Warrnambool, Baxter, Prahran

Western Australia: Hillarys, Fremantle, Mirrabooka