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COVID Prevention Efforts May Have Blocked Flu in Southern Countries

FILE — In this Aug. 24, 2020 file photo, a student, wearing a face mask and shield, returns to the Melpark Primary School in Johannesburg after several months of lockdown.
FILE — In this Aug. 24, 2020 file photo, a student, wearing a face mask and shield, returns to the Melpark Primary School in Johannesburg after several months of lockdown.
COVID Prevention Efforts May Have Blocked Flu in Southern Countries
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Countries including South Africa, Australia and Argentina have had a surprise during their winter season: Their steps against COVID-19 also seemed to block the flu.

Winter is now ending in the Southern Hemisphere as summer is nearing its end in the northern half of the world. But, there is no guarantee that Northern countries will have the same experience as southern ones.

Dr. Robert Redfield is director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He told The Associated Press, “This could be one of the worst seasons we’ve had from a public health perspective with COVID and flu coming together.” But, he added, “It could also be one of the best flu seasons we’ve had.”

U.S. health officials are urging Americans to get vaccinated against the flu in record numbers this autumn. The hope is that hospitals will not have to face two pandemics at once.

It is becoming clear that wearing face masks, avoiding crowds and keeping your distance are protections that are not only helpful to prevent COVID-19. “They’re going to work for any respiratory virus,” Redfield noted.

Usually, South Africa sees widespread influenza during the Southern Hemisphere’s winter months of May through August. This year, testing carried out by the country’s National Institute of Communicable Diseases is finding few cases. The situation is very unusual.

School closures, limited public gatherings and calls to wear masks and wash hands have “knocked down the flu,” said Dr. Cheryl Cohen, head of the institute’s respiratory program.

That meant lives saved from the flu. It also, Cohen noted, “freed up our hospitals’ capacity to treat COVID-19 patients.”

In Australia, the national health department reported just 36 laboratory-confirmed flu-related deaths from January to the middle of August. It reported more than 480 during the same period last year.

“The most likely and the biggest contributor is social distancing,” said Dr. Robert Booy, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Sydney.

The coronavirus is blamed for about 24 million infections and more than 821,000 deaths worldwide in just the first eight months of this year. A normal flu year could have the world’s hospitals dealing with several million more severely ill people on top of COVID-19.

In February and March, the worldwide spread of the coronavirus was just being recognized. At the time, many countries in the Southern Hemisphere began preparing to deal with both flu and COVID-19. As they shut down to fight the coronavirus, they also made a push for flu vaccinations.

“We gave many more flu vaccinations, like four times more,” said Jaco Havenga, a drugmaker who works at Mays Chemist near Johannesburg, in South Africa.

The flu has not disappeared, a World Health Organization report recently warned. The report said that, worldwide, “influenza activity was reported at lower levels than expected for this time of year.”

The WHO also noted that some people who had the flu in Southern Hemisphere countries might have just stayed at home and not seen a doctor because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Children usually drive flu’s spread. International influenza experts say keeping schools closed as well as face mask and distancing rules have helped keep the spread slow.

The United State and some countries in Europe have not been as restrictive with coronavirus rules as some Southern Hemisphere countries. They are in many cases reopening schools and reducing distancing rules even as COVID-19 continues to spread.

The U.S. CDC is urging a record number of flu vaccinations. Redfield’s goal is for at least 65 percent of adults to be vaccinated. Usually only about half of U.S. adults get the flu vaccine.

The U.S. expects more than 190 million individual flu vaccines, about 20 million more than last year. States are being urged to make it easy for people to get flu shots. Suggestions include vaccinating people in their cars in an effort to avoid crowds.

In an unusual move, the state of Massachusetts is requiring flu vaccination for all students this year. Usually only some healthcare workers face such requirements.

The flu vaccine only protects against influenza. It will not reduce a person’s chances of getting the coronavirus. Vaccines against COVID-19 are still experimental and several candidates are entering final testing to see if they are effective.

I’m Ashley Thompson.

The Associated Press reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.


Words in This Story

flu, influenza –n. a common sickness caused by a virus that causes fever, weakness, pain and breathing problems

pandemic –n. the fast spread of an infectious disease to many people over a very large area of the world

respiratory –adj. related to breathing and the lungs

knocked down –v. greatly reduce, to cause to fall

capacity –n. the ability to provide a service for those who need it

contributor –n. one of several actions that help bring about a result

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