The winter spike in flu-like symptoms is occurring earlier than usual across Australia this year, new data suggests.
The Flutracking Project, coordinated by public health physician Craig Dalton, has recorded increases in flu-like symptoms at a much earlier point than the five-year average.
“We’re seeing an early rapid upswing,” Dalton said. “Usually we get this sort of upswing in fever and cough and influenza-like illness in late August, but this year it’s really started in mid to late-July.”
The flu-tracking project involves an online survey of more than 20,000 Australians each week, run jointly by Newcastle University, Hunter New England Population Health, and the Hunter Medical Research Institute.
Dalton describes it as a grassroots, crowdsourced citizen science project.
The respondents are asked to report symptoms of coughing and fever, which are then used by researchers to determine the onset of the flu season by region. It can also help to measure the severity of influenza strains and the effectiveness of vaccines.
“It’s the only system that tracks severity of flu and influenza-like illness from the grassroots up,” Dalton said.
“Many other systems rely on people going to the doctor and getting a test, or being reported by the doctor.”
The results follow data released by the NSW health department earlier this week, which indicate a particularly bad flu year in the state.
More than 11,200 influenza cases were reported in July across the state.
In the past week alone, more than 8,000 people presented to emergency departments, compared with 2,000 for the same time last year.
There were more than 50 outbreaks in the state’s aged care homes last week, prompting warnings from doctors for sick people to avoid visiting elderly relatives.
“Each year more than 800 people die in NSW from complications associated with influenza and the elderly are particularly vulnerable,” NSW Health’s communicable diseases director, Vicky Sheppeard, said on Tuesday.
“We are seeing high levels of both influenza A and B strains circulating in the community and older people are more susceptible to severe infection from the influenza A strain that is circulating.”
A similar trend was seen in Queensland. The number of reported flu cases jumped to almost 2,000 this week, the ABC reported.
Dalton cautioned against describing 2017 as a “record” years for influenza.
He said more and more lab testing was being conducted every year, leading to more reported cases, and skewing the results.
Dalton said projects like the flu tracker were useful measurements during flu pandemics, like that experienced in 2009. During such pandemics, more people go to the doctors for testing, causing a spike in reported flu cases and distorting the data.
But he said more young families were needed for the survey.
“We really need young families to join, because we really want to track young children after five and babies,” he said.
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