Missing, feared dead: Have you seen the Winter Flu?

Spare a moment, in this festive season, to mourn an old friend that’s missing in action. At this time of year, we’re usually joined by one of our old friends, the Orthomyxoviridae – better known as the viruses that cause Winter Flu.

But this year?

No sign of them.

LATEST FIGURES SHOW that no cases of flu have been transmitted in Ireland this winter.

Figures released by the HSE show that there have been no outbreaks of the illness since early October, the period when annual counts traditionally begin.

The health service noted that the low figures are due to the disruption that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused to influenza networks across the globe.

This isn’t a new pattern, incidentally. Right across the globe, the coronavirus has devastated economies, and also, the flu.

The pattern began in Australia, during their winter, which takes place in our summer:

By August, it was clear that Australia’s flu season had been the mildest on record. In all, there were fewer than a 10th of the infections seen in 2019 – and the vast majority of these occurred before the pandemic hit. This is all against a backdrop of more testing than had ever been conducted before.

What’s happening? Well, the experts say, we’ve basically socially distanced the poor flu to death. From that same piece:

“We don’t really understand it, but it may have to and may have to do with a little bit of changes in terms of how we interact with each other,” says Peter Palese, a microbiologist and expert in RNA viruses at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York. “There is a possibility this might also continue in the future.”

That bit in bold seems fanciful, to put it mildly. If and when Covid is finally eradicated, or rendered harmless, thanks to a vaccine, or herd immunity, or some combination of both, then politicians and health experts who fantasise that our current social distancing will remain in place, and effective, are off their rocker. It’s far more likely, in fact, that people will over-compensate for a year of relative isolation by going – not to put too fine a point on it – buck wild with parties, and gatherings, and other things which will make the flu’s little eyes open up in delight.

In fact, some experts are already worried about just this outcome. This, they say, may have been the year of the coronavirus, but next year, if Covid is gone, could be the year of the flu to end all flus:

In reality, we don’t know for sure if social distancing has led to fewer flu infections worldwide – or just the number recorded. If it hasn’t, the rate of its evolution might be largely unchanged. This would mean that next year – when social distancing may have been largely abandoned – parts of the world that currently have fewer flu cases could be hit hard.

If there’s no transmission of other respiratory pathogens, that means people are not getting immunity to them,” says Cobey. “One thing I really am worried about is what will happen to these other pathogens once there’s a [Covid-19] vaccine.”

In other words, the flu may well be lying dormant, biding it’s time, waiting for Covid to enjoy its fifteen months of fame, before coming roaring back with a vengeance next year.

That’s hardly a comforting thought.

By the way, if you’re tempted to jump into the comments with some version of “Covid is just this year’s flu”, or whatever, then feel free, but know that you’re totally wrong. They are completely different viruses, from completely different families. The symptoms of both are similar, but that doesn’t mean they’re the same. The symptoms of angina, after all, are similar to the symptoms of a heart attack. You’d probably still rather have one than the other.

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