Surprise! Many Fewer Cases of Flu in US, Canada, Europe

Weeks into the northern hemisphere’s flu season, most countries are reporting many fewer flu cases

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IN NORTH AMERICA, THE INFLUENZA SEASON IS NOW UNDERWAY.  But it is starting off much slower than in past years. What makes this significant is that the number of influenza cases as reported by Europe and countries in the southern hemisphere also has been much lower than in a typical year. 

In the United Kingdom, data released by Public Health England last Friday “showed there were only 1.2 GP consultations for suspected flu per 100,000 people last week. This time last year—a relatively mild year for flu—the figure was 10.6 per 100,000, so 90% higher.”

This seems consistent with how the flu season in the southern hemisphere ended earlier this year. An NPR story published in August quoted Kanta Subbarao, MD, Director of the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza in Melbourne, Australia. She said, “Based on what we’ve seen in the Southern Hemisphere—and I would say this is true of all through the Southern Hemisphere—South America, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, all across this region, there’s been very little influenza activity.” 

Fewer Doctor Visits for Flu

As of last Friday, the federal Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) reported that through “week 48, 1.6% of patient visits reported through ILINet were due to ILI (Influenza-Like Illness). This percentage is below the national baseline of 2.6%.” Of equal interest, since Sept. 27, the CDC has reported only about 500 cases of influenza and three deaths. 

The situation is similar in Canada. On its website, the federal Canadian Health Authority wrote, “In week 48, three laboratory detections of influenza were reported. To date this season, 32 influenza detections have been reported, which is significantly lower than the past six seasons where an average of 2,170 influenza detections were reported between weeks 35-48. All provinces and territories are closely monitoring indicators of influenza activity this season.”

Fewer Orders for Flu Tests?

If there is good news in early indications that the influenza season during 2020-21 may be much milder than in recent years, it is that physicians in the United States may be ordering a much lower number of influenza tests from clinical laboratories in coming months. 

The number of influenza cases, as reported by the CDC, may also help lab administrators better estimate the number of influenza tests and respiratory virus kits that they need to buy throughout the balance of the 2020-21 influenza season. This would be useful because of budget pressures. 

Also, given the serious and ongoing disruptions to the clinical laboratory supply chain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, fewer flu cases would be a welcome development. 

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