Hot spots where flu is out of control
QUEENSLAND'S horror flu season has gone from bad to worse, with two regions running at over 16 times the five-year average for this time of year.
Regional flu data shows the Torres Strait and Cape York health district and northwest Queensland, which centres on Mount Isa, have confirmed influenza cases running at 16.4 and 16.7 times their 2014-2018 average respectively.
Queensland has already recorded more than 11,500 flu notifications so far this year, compared with 15,696 for the whole of 2018, with the peak of the 2019 season yet to hit, usually between July to September.
The latest Queensland flu report shows 460 cases have been recorded in the Torres Strait and Cape York region, compared with the five-year mean of just 28 notifications.
And northwest Queensland, a large area taking in Camooweal, Burketown, Mornington Island, Cloncurry, Julia Creek and Normanton, has had 140 confirmed flu cases in 2019, way higher than the 8.4 average in recent years.
So far this year, 897 people have been admitted to Queensland public hospitals with the flu, including 80 who have required intensive care.
University of Queensland virologist Ian Mackay said flu experts were still debating the reasons behind the "unprecedentedly" big Australian Summer and Autumn flu season.
He said a small contributory factor may be the extended hot weather in Queensland, with more people seeking out airconditioning, going to the movies and staying inside more, putting them at increased risk of catching the flu in confined spaces.
Associate Professor Mackay has called for more public health research into flu viruses in Australia to better understand the change in patterns, with the latest National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System data showing 119 confirmed flu deaths across the country so far this year.
"To me it feels a bit like we've dropped the ball and we need to be doing some research to find out what's changed about the viruses and really get some answers on what's going on," he said.
"As a past researcher myself, I know it's pretty hard to get funding to do any sort of research if you don't already have existing funds.
"We need to be thinking about some sort of public health research fund that allows us to respond to things like strange patterns in flu emergence."
Prof Mackay said that should include more detailed genetic analysis of circulating flu strains to learn more about "the changes we need to keep an eye out for" in the leadup to a bad season.
"Maybe that would also help push the drive towards a universal flu vaccine which we really, really need," he said.
A universal flu vaccine would protect against all strains of the flu, rather than three or four a season.
In the meantime, doctors continue to urge Australians to be vaccinated yearly against the flu.