Sunday, June 27, 2010

Winter's chill means a big comeback for swine flu

Stephen Cauchi
June 27, 2010 - 3:00AM

WE'VE just had the coldest morning, the shortest day, and the gloomiest month in Melbourne. But take heart: compared with last year, this winter won't be the worst for flu, with medical experts predicting a quiet and slow start to the flu season.

However, the downside is the pandemic ''swine'' strain of influenza will be the predominant form of the infectious disease, likely to account for up to nine out of 10 cases of flu this year.

Amid an average start to winter, in terms of temperature and rainfall, there were only 884 cases of flu diagnosed nationally this year to June 11, according to the federal Health Department. The figure was 3611 last year, to June 16, driven largely by the low levels of immunity to swine flu.

''We're having a quiet and slow start to the flu season this year,'' said Australian Medical Association vice-president Steve Hambleton. ''This time last year the H1N1 strain was ramping up very quickly.''

He expected swine flu to account for up to nine out of 10 cases of flu in 2010, with seasonal strains - H3N2 and influenza B - accounting for the rest.

According to the Health Department, 9.2 per cent of flu diagnoses this year were definitely swine flu, while 75.7 were most probably swine flu. Only 10.4 per cent were seasonal strains - the types of flu suffered by most people in Australia, before swine flu hit last year.

Dr Hambleton said he expected fewer swine flu cases this winter. ''We now have a significant number of Australians who are actually immune, either because they got the disease last year or because they have been vaccinated,'' he said.

''We're in a very different position to where we were last year where no one had immunity, apart from those over 65 who seem to have residual immunity … We're expecting a lot less.''

Victoria has had an average start to winter, in terms of temperature and rainfall, according to the Bureau of Meteorology. And the state can expect more of the same next month.

Last Tuesday morning was Melbourne's coldest this year, dropping to 3.6 degrees. Appropriately, the chill came the morning after the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, and June was the month with the fewest hours of sunshine.

Mr Hambleton urged all Victorians at risk of getting flu to be vaccinated. ''We know that the vaccination for the population is safe and we should encourage its use, because we do know that there are people who will get pandemic flu who will end up in hospital in intensive care.''

Australia's chief medical officer, Jim Bishop, is continuing to recommend that vaccination for seasonal flu strains be suspended for children under five. The recommendation follows reports of children in Western Australia experiencing fever with convulsions after having the vaccine. However, Dr Bishop has stated that the swine flu vaccine is acceptable for children under five, saying this month that ''the swine flu vaccine Panvax has been shown to be safe and effective in young children and is freely available''.

Dr Hambleton said there could be a rise in children under five getting seasonal flu.

This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/winters-chill-means-a-big-comeback-for-swine-flu-20100626-zb23.html

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