Australia reported 93,711 laboratory-confirmed flu illnesses on August 18, which is about 2.5-times the average number of flu illnesses. There were 52 deaths and 1,429 hospitalizations, or twice normal.
Two-thirds of the infections involved the H3N2 flu virus, a nasty strain that is more likely to cause a serious illness, especially in older adults.
Even more troubling was the fact that many victims got their flu shot, and the flu shot was well-matched against the H3N2 flu virus. Even so, the shot was not very effective. It will be updated for next season — but there is no time to change it before flu season starts in the U.S.
The flu circulates in Australia and Asia before spreading to the U.S. and Europe. Small clusters of H3N2 flu are already popping up in the U.S., but there is no way to tell how bad this year’s flu season will be.
According to Dr. Daniel Jernigan, influenza chief at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
We don’t know what’s going to happen but there’s a chance we could have a season similar to Australia.”
In the meantime, U.S. officials are urging Americans to get their flu shot before the virus begins circulating widely. Last year, less than 50% of the American population was vaccinated against the flu.
The vaccine also contains protection against H1N1 Type A (“swine flu”) — the same strain that caused a global pandemic in 2009 — as well as protection against two Type B strains that are less dangerous.