Flu seasons passes peak but vaccine will still protect this year

While the worst of the flu season appears to have been through its peak, vaccines will still protect for the rest of the year.
While the worst of the flu season appears to have been through its peak, vaccines will still protect for the rest of the year.

The bitterly cold weekend just passed may be the best reminder yet that the winter flu can still be caught, despite being in the final wintery month before a new season appears.

This year's flu season may have passed its peak, but NSW Health warns people still need to remain vigilant for the next few weeks.

It is urging those yet to have their flu shot this year to do so now, as influenza is still spreading around the state.

NSW Health's Director of Communicable Disease, Dr Vicky Sheppeard, says even though it is nearing the end of winter when the risk is greatest, people can still be struck down with the flu all year round.

"With only a few weeks left of winter, influenza activity is continuing to decrease, but it is still about so people should remember to take simple precautions," she said.

"The flu can affect people of all age groups, even those who are fit and healthy."

"Vaccination is your best protection against the bug and it's still not too late to get the jab.

"There are plentiful supplies of influenza vaccine and we urge parents of children under 5 years of age, those over 65 years and others vulnerable to the flu to visit their GP as soon as possible."

The latest weekly Influenza Surveillance Report shows 4424 flu cases for the week ending August 4, down from 6126 notifications the previous week, taking the yearly total to 69,055. There have been 21 additional deaths of people aged over 25 years reported, bringing the annual total to 127 confirmed influenza deaths.

"Just like the common cold the best precautions people can take against the flu are to ensure they wash their hands thoroughly, cover their coughs and sneezes and stay home if they are unwell," Dr Sheppeard said.

"We are encouraging people who are sick to stay away from elderly relatives or friends until they have recovered, as they often have chronic or complex conditions that are aggravated by influenza."

Australian researchers who are examining how the flu affects the immune response of young children are also looking for children to take part in a new study.

The research, to be led by the Murdoch Children's Research Institute (MCRI), will ultimately help scientists develop more effective flu vaccines, and participating children (aged six months to five years) will be vaccinated against flu and monitored over a year.

MCRI's Infection and Immunity Leader, Associate Professor Nigel Crawford said most children have had the flu by the time they are five, but little is understood about how the virus interacts with a child's immune system and affects subsequent responses to influenza vaccine.

"New research from the US has found that the influenza virus can reprogram a child's immune system for future flu exposure, but the impact varies depending on which strain of flu you get as a child," he said.

"We need to learn more about how children's immune systems respond to the flu because this can also shape how we react to flu vaccines as adults."

For the study, researchers will work closely with scientists at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, a joint venture of the University of Melbourne and the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

MCRI will also work closely with Melbourne's Royal Children's Hospital and the Children's Hospital Westmead in Sydney.

"The chief aim of the study is to assist in the creation of a more effective universal influenza vaccine," University of Melbourne Professor Kanta Subbarao from the Doherty Institute said.

"We are hoping to recruit 40-50 subjects in this first year of the study with an additional 10 children next year."

To be eligible for the study children must not have had this year's flu vaccine and be aged between six months to five years of age. Participating children will receive the influenza vaccine and have three blood tests this year, and the next year.

Interested parents can contact the SAEFVIC flu surveillance team at the Royal Children's Hospital for more information on (03) 9345 5066 or email paeds.study@mcri.edu.au