Where did the flu disappear during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Where did the flu disappear during the COVID-19 pandemic?

In the middle of last year, some experts were scaring mankind with the coming autumn-winter “twindemic” – a double epidemic in which COVID-19 and influenza are combined. A really scary scenario was imagined: the number of hospitalizations due to seasonal colds would traditionally increase in the fall and it would kill hospitals already overcrowded with patients with coronavirus infections.

But the frightening predictions didn’t come true. The flu surprised researchers, and now they are making even more dire predictions.

What happened to the flu?

The short answer: the cold season actually didn’t happen. For the first time in the history of surveillance, medics have found that the incidence of influenza (the most dangerous of seasonal infections) is now virtually nonexistent in most countries.

If you analyze the situation that is happening now in Europe and globally, we can safely say that this has not happened in the entire history of influenza surveillance, that is, since the 1940s. This situation is unique, and it is very interesting to monitor it.

Usually the cold season in the Northern Hemisphere begins around mid-December and lasts until late March or early April. But not this year. The World Health Organization reports that the incidence of influenza is low or at an interseasonal level. That is, people get infected about the same as in the summer.

The WHO echoes the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): they call flu rates “unusually low”. Between October 1, 2020, and April 17, 2021, only 223 people were hospitalized because of this respiratory infection – compared to 19,932 who were hospitalized during the same period last year.

This means that the total number of flu-related hospitalizations in the United States has dropped by 99%!

Why did the flu disappear?

COVID-19 is believed to be the cause of its disappearance. But not in the sense that conspiracy theorists like to use: that the flu has disappeared because doctors attribute every sneeze to a coronavirus infection. No, it’s much simpler than that.

The situation looks as if anticoronavirus measures were more effective against influenza than against COVID-19. Scientists are still having trouble giving a complete list of reasons why the flu has disappeared. But here are three that have clearly prevented the virus from transmitting freely from one host to another:

1. Hygiene measures

Masks in public places, regular handwashing – all these things deter the spread of respiratory infections.

2. Limiting personal contact

Because of the pandemic, people are more likely to keep their distance from each other. In addition, many people switched to telecommuting and schools to distance learning.

Because of this, people began to take public transportation much less frequently. And the number of long-distance trips decreased as well.

3. Mass Flu Vaccination

In anticipation of the twindemic, states launched large-scale campaigns to popularize vaccinations. As a result, in the EU, for example, over 70% of the adult population has now been vaccinated. And in some countries, such as Portugal, Spain, Iceland, France, and Denmark, over 80% of citizens are vaccinated.

Will the flu come back?

Now this is a debatable question. On the one hand, the “low season” may wipe out some strains. It is possible that forever.

On the other hand, as a result of reduced viral competition, new versions of influenza, such as dangerous variants of swine or bird flu, may activate. People encounter such infections all the time, at agricultural fairs or when visiting zoos.

However, due to our body’s familiarity with influenza, our natural immunity helps to keep an infectious attack in check. But if the virus disappears for a few seasons, the immunity will weaken – with unpleasant (perhaps even catastrophic) consequences.

Another difficulty is that because the flu season has failed, scientists cannot predict which strains of the virus will be active by next winter. That means they can’t make vaccines that really work.

This will probably overlap with the end of the coronavirus pandemic, when people will happily drop their masks and throw themselves into each other’s arms. The effect could be colossal: this winter there will be not a seasonal flu outbreak, but a real explosion.

However, forecasting, as we found out above, is a thankless task. Only time will tell whether events will develop according to a negative scenario or whether mankind will be lucky.


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