Ten South Australians have died from influenza already this flu season, as the number of confirmed cases approaches 11,000 in what is being labelled as “unprecedented numbers” by SA Health.
The worst start to a flu season in the state, in which 10 people between the ages of 15 and 92 have died from the highly contagious virus since January 1 and an eight-fold increase in notifications (10,636 so far compared to 1316) has prompted SA Health to issue a plea for people to get vaccinated.
SA Health chief medical officer and chief public health officer Professor Paddy Phillips said the community should heed the message after the deaths.
“That is a real message to the community to please go out and get protected by getting a flu shot,” he said.
In 2018, 12 people died from the flu while in 2017 it was 124.
Prof Phillips said the number of people coming down with the flu in 2019 was way higher than previous years.
“We have had unprecedented numbers of flu infections so far,” he said.
“This is the tip of the iceberg … people get ill with the flu and don’t get tested and go see a doctor.
“What we are seeing is a very unusual year with early and high numbers of influenza, possibly brought in from overseas.
“We haven’t seen this early peak before, it is very unusual.”
Prof Phillips said he hoped the number could be driven down as more people get vaccines.
After what Prof Phillips described as “unprecedented demand” for flu shots in suburban clinics, there were shortages of the vaccines at the start of April.
He said there were no more restrictions on them.
“We are delivering all the vaccines that individual practices order through us and we can do that quickly,” he said.
“There is no restriction from our end.”
Local Health Networks have begun their immunisation programs, and Prof Phillips said he would get his own jab this afternoon.
A Sydney researcher said the increase in notifications for the virus was due to a drop in “community immunity”.
The majority of confirmed SA cases were female, with 6008 women and girls affected by the virus, compared with 4628 men.
The age range for flu diagnoses stretch from only months old to 101 years old.
Children between birth and four years old are the most likely to contract the virus.
Researchers estimate there will be about 4000 deaths for flu-related complications in 2019, and about two million cases across the country.
Child and adolescent health researcher Professor Robert Booy from the University of Sydney said the total was likely to be the highest since 2017.
“If it’s higher I’ll be really concerned,” said Professor Booy, who urged people to get the flu jab.
“The importance of being vaccinated is quite simple, to protect yourself, even if you’re a healthy person … the double positive is to protect others such as babies and the elderly.
“Lead by example and get a vaccination.”
Prof Booy said “herd immunity” can be achieved when at least 50 per cent of the population is vaccinated.
Some GPs are providing a second dose for vulnerable people in August to prevent future outbursts.
All states are now offering a new vaccine to babies from six months and pregnant women are encouraged to vaccinate.
Flu symptoms in pregnant women have been proven to affect the unborn child’s growth in some cases.