The UAE might be in for a tough flu season

While it is too early to tell, a number of factors could make this year's outbreak worse than most

With just 68 new cases of Covid-19 diagnosed on Monday and a steady reduction in cases over the past few months, the UAE is in a good place to manage the virus.

Indeed, in several (though not all) parts of the world, the trials of the pandemic are easing. But too much celebration would be premature; scientists warn that this winter could see some of the worst cases of the flu seen in years.

Covid-19 and the flu are different diseases, with the novel coronavirus being far more lethal. But without a specialised test, it is often difficult to distinguish between them. The WHO officially recognises 13 Covid-19 symptoms, many overlapping with those seen in the flu. Moreover, some sufferers of Covid-19 are asymptomatic but can pass on the illness.

Fortunately, PCR tests remain very accurate at detecting Covid-19. And that is why healthcare professionals such as Dr Fernanda Bonilla of Abu Dhabi’s Cleveland Clinic, who spoke to The National last month, encourage people to keep getting them.

And while this year's flu might feel horrid, this was, to some extent predictable. Doctors knew that lockdowns, social distancing, deep sanitisation and reduced person-to-person contact throughout the past year and a half could weaken immune systems, which, without exposure to germs, don’t always develop a sufficient response to new illnesses. There was, moreover, very little exposure to the flu last year. Just 0.2 per cent of samples tested in the US, for example, were positive, compared to between 26 per cent and 30 per cent during the three preceding flu seasons.

It remains to be seen whether the worst fears around flu this year are proven right, but these facts should remind us of the need to be vigilant.

Healthcare professionals in the UAE have been preparing. Experts are encouraging most people to get the flu vaccine. In Abu Dhabi, it is free for people over 50 and under 18, as well as pregnant women and people with disabilities and chronic diseases.

It is crucial that everyone get on board with the campaign. While Covid-19 remains the more dangerous virus, ever-changing strains of the flu often affect a wider share of the population, including children. It, too, has the power to overrun healthcare systems, even in developed countries. In 2017, the world experienced one of the worst influenza outbreaks in decades, resulting in more than 50,000 deaths in the US alone.

This is why it is so important that countries do not forget that the diminishing threat posed by Covid-19 does not immediately mean a much-diminished threat to healthcare systems and vulnerable people generally.

On the brighter side, because of the pandemic, many places now have strong experience in managing diseases, and an infrastructure, particularly regarding vaccines, that helps to do so. Crucially, more than ever, people know how to protect themselves and limit the spread of disease, and we should continue to wear masks, wash hands and practise social distancing.

We do not yet know for sure if we are on the cusp of a precarious flu season. But even if we are, while not invincible, lessons from Covid-19 could help us face down the next viral threat.

Published: November 10th 2021, 3:00 AM