Cases of influenza B remain at concerning levels as New South Wales students begin to return from school holidays.
Table of Contents
- More than half of influenza cases in NSW were in people aged under 20 in the most recent data
- The NSW Royal Australian College of GPs says an "extraordinary" number of young people are requiring intensive care
- The NSW Department of Education has said preventing spread is a "priority"
The latest NSW Health respiratory surveillance report showed that influenza "continued to dominate respiratory virus activity in NSW".
During the week ending July 9, 3,976 of 7,202 reported cases of all influenza strains were people aged 19 and under.
"Influenza activity continues to increase in NSW," a NSW Health spokesperson said.
"Currently, there is a mix of types circulating in the community, influenza A and influenza B, with the proportion being equal.
"Almost half, 47 per cent, of all admissions to hospital for influenza-like illnesses are in children 0-16 years of age, in the week ending July 9.
"With the return to school, NSW Health remains concerned that there may be a continued increase in influenza activity."
The NSW and ACT chair of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP), Charlotte Hespe, said an "extraordinary" number of young people with the virus were requiring intensive care support in hospitals across the state.
"This has not been an age group that we've really seen badly affected by the flu in the past," she said.
"So this is an uncommon occurrence which means we need to be reactive."
The respiratory report also notes that presentations to hospital emergency departments remain high, especially people under the age of 17.
There was a dip in ED presentations in the 5-16 years age group, but the report notes that coincided with the start of the NSW school holidays.
Local health districts (LHDs) in Sydney account for more than 60 per cent of cases so far in 2023, with Western and South Western Sydney making up more than a third.
The Hunter New England and Nepean Blue Mountains have both had more than 3,000 cases this year — the most among regional NSW LHDs.
How should we prepare?
There are concerns that with students returning to school the rates of infection, and more serious cases, could rise with it.
A spokesperson for the NSW Department of Education acknowledged the risk and advised parents to keep children home if unwell.
"Preventing the spread of illnesses is a priority for our schools," the spokesperson said.
"We continue to remind staff and students to minimise the risks of respiratory illnesses by following NSW Health advice, including staying at home when unwell, practising good hygiene, and remaining up to date with immunisations."
The NSW Health spokesperson said parents needed to be alert for symptoms.
"Children impacted by influenza can deteriorate from influenza itself, but can also develop secondary symptoms," the spokesperson said.
"If your child's symptoms are getting worse and not better it is best to check with your GP.
"If you are not able to access a GP please call Healthdirect on 1800 022 222. In emergencies call Triple 0 (000)."
There are also calls for the flu vaccine to be made free for all Australians.
At the moment, those considered to be at higher risk of severe illness from influenza are eligible for a free flu vaccine, including:
- children aged six months to under five years;
- people aged 65 and over;
- Aboriginal people from six months of age;
- pregnant women; and
- those with serious health conditions such as diabetes, cancer, immune disorders, obesity, severe asthma, kidney, heart, lung, or liver disease.
Professor Hespe said vaccination rates among the younger demographic in NSW was worryingly low.
"You can be a well and healthy teenager and be very sick with this particular strain of the flu," she said.
"All kids between the ages of 5 and 16 should be prioritised for flu vaccinations."
NSW Health said to June 11 there had been 32 deaths in NSW in people of all ages attributable to influenza.
"It is important to note that there is a lag in reporting cause of death, and the number of reported deaths is likely to under-estimate the total number of people who have died as a result of having influenza," the spokesperson said.
"[That's because] not all people with influenza are tested and a recent influenza-like illness may not be seen as being linked to a person's death."