Flu peak has passed but season not over yet

The worst of the flu season has passed but NSW Health is urging people to remain alert to symptoms as the risk is expected to stay high through early spring.

NSW Health’s latest Influenza Surveillance Report shows that while flu activity is still high there are signs it’s easing in the community and the number of people presenting to emergency departments with flu symptoms is starting to decline.

Dr Vicky Sheppeard, Director Communicable Diseases NSW Health, said the flu notifications increased this season by almost 50 per cent compared to last year, largely due to the increasing use of more sensitive tests by GPs and emergency departments.

Around 250,000 flu tests have been conducted in NSW so far this year compared to 149,000 over the same period last year and just 16,000 flu tests over the same period in 2010.

“Our rate of testing for flu in NSW has increased dramatically since 2010 and we now have the most sophisticated flu surveillance system in Australia,” Dr Sheppeard said.

“We’ve been adopting new and better testing techniques following the last recorded pandemic in 2009, which enable accurate diagnosis and early treatment with the appropriate use of antiviral drugs.”

Nationally there has been almost two and a half times the number of laboratory confirmed notifications of influenza reported this year when compared with the same period last year.

NSW Health started its annual statewide flu campaign in May this year at a cost of more than $200,000, urging people eligible for the free vaccine to get vaccinated and to encourage the community to help stop the spread of flu.

Dr Sheppeard said people should continue to watch for symptoms as we head into spring and take care to avoid spreading flu to others.

“We’re past the peak of the flu season but we expect flu activity to remain high for the next few weeks so it’s important not to become complacent,” she said.

Influenza symptoms include a sudden high fever, cough, headache, muscle and joint pain, feeling unwell, and sore throat.

Dr Sheppeard said those who develop symptoms should seek advice from their GP or HealthDirect Australia (1800 022 222), a 24 hour helpline that provides advice from registered nurses.

“It’s important to do this before calling 000 to avoid placing unnecessary demand on hospital emergency departments.”

NSW Health hospitals plan for increased demands on their services each winter and carry out a range of measures to meet the increase.

“Surges in emergency department presentations are related not just to influenza but to a range of illnesses, and the system is managing very well despite significant increases in demand, thanks to the hard work of hospital staff,” Dr Sheppeard said.

A vaccine protecting against the four circulating influenza strains is free for people eligible under the National Immunisation Program. This includes those who are pregnant, over 65 years of age, have severe asthma, diabetes and heart conditions, as well as Aboriginal people aged from six months up to five years and 15 years of age and over.

“We encourage all people to get the flu vaccine but particularly the more vulnerable groups who not only have a higher chance of getting the flu but are more severely impacted by it.”

As well as getting a flu shot each year the following steps help prevent flu:

  • Wash your hands regularly, cover coughs and sneezes, and encourage others to do so as well
  • Ask sick people to stay away until they are well
  • If you are vulnerable to severe influenza see your doctor as soon as flu symptoms start as early treatment of flu can help prevent complications.

NSW Influenza Surveillance Reports can be viewed at: http://www.health.nsw.gov.au/Infectious/Influenza/Pages/reports.aspx.

For more information see the NSW Health influenza fact sheet.

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