Doctors have responded to a surge in Covid-19 cases around the world by reminding anyone displaying flu-like symptoms to isolate at home for five days and not to travel.
A busy travel season with people returning to the UAE after a summer break is likely to add to an unusually high number of flu-like viruses reported in hospitals.
Although Covid testing has been significantly cut back in recent months, doctors said they expected to treat more cases in the weeks ahead due to the rise of the latest viral strain, named Eris by scientists.
The World Health Organisation first identified Eris – or EG. 5.1 – as the latest subvariant of Omicron in May.
Although not currently listed as a variant of concern by the WHO, it is on a watch list and thought to be responsible for around 14 per cent of new cases in the UK, and 17.3 per cent in the US, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
Both nations reported a spike in hospitalisations at the end of July, with a 12.1 per cent increase in the US and a 40.7 per cent rise at UK hospitals, the UK Health and Security Agency said.
“Eris looks very similar to previous strains of Covid, but the rate of replication of this virus is very high so the risk of hospitalisation has also increased,” said Dr Abhinav Gupta, internal medicine specialist at Life Medical Centre, Circle Mall, Jumeirah Village Circle.
“As it multiplies faster, it also spreads faster.
“It is not causing more serious health conditions than the other viruses but someone who is elderly or has multiple co-morbidities can become more prone to this.
“If someone is sick and has some of the recognised symptoms like change of smell or taste, fever, sore throat, runny nose, sneezing or headache then visit a doctor to get checked out.
“If you are positive for Covid-19 people should isolate for at least five days to prevent spreading it further.”
Symptoms associated with Eris are similar to those seen in earlier variants of Omicron.
They include a sore throat, blocked or runny nose, coughing, headaches, sneezing, muscle aches and a change in the sense of smell and taste.
Anyone aged over 65 or with associated health problems is advised to contact health authorities to have a booster vaccine, if they have not already.
Despite the increase in people visiting doctors with flu-type symptoms, medics said they could not be sure Eris was circulating widely in the UAE due to a lack of virus testing.
“The rate of testing is much less than it was just six months ago, so we treat most viruses like a normal flu, unless they become particularly unwell when we then test for Covid,” said Dr Gupta.
“We no longer test if the symptoms are mild.
“The issue is if people do get sick, they are not isolating or avoiding other people so the virus will circulate.
“I see 20-30 cases of flu every day and I tell them all to isolate, but they are saying their employer is not allowing them to do so.”
According to the most recent record of PCR testing by the UAE’s National Emergency Crisis and Disasters Management Authority (NCEMA) on May 23, 8,969 Covid-19 tests were performed, with just 77 confirmed cases.
Treatment for the Eris strain of Covid is the same as previous variants.
Those showing symptoms are advised to isolate, rest, drink plenty of fluids and treat headaches and coughs with the usual medication like Panadol/paracetamol and cough syrups.
The warning signs have already suggested this winter could be a particularly difficult one for flu and other seasonal viruses.
Tough winter Down Under
In the Australian winter – usually a precursor for the latest influenza strain to hit the Northern Hemisphere in October – there has been a significant increase in cases.
Australia is in the midst of one of its harshest flu seasons on record, with children under five accounting for almost 80 per cent of hospital admissions, due to their underdeveloped immunity.
Vaccination rates in Australian children have also dropped off this year with only around 23 per cent of those under five protected, compared to around 41 per cent vaccinated against flu pre-Covid.
Influenza has been the most reported respiratory infection in the 2023 Australian winter, accounting for around a third of all cases, compared with just 18 per cent recorded as Covid-19.
Dr Saheer Sainalabdeen, a pulmonologist at Medeor Hospital in Dubai, said the combined affects of Covid-19 and flu could not be ignored.
“In the last seven to 10 days we have been seeing an increase in flu cases, but as we are not testing we do not know if this is this new strain of Covid-19 or not,” he said.
“Eris is very common in the US and UK now and we need to be careful here as it is hospitalising elderly patients in those countries.
“We are seeing more cases of flu-type illness now as people are returning to the UAE from a busy travel season and expect cases to continue to increase in the weeks ahead.
“Normally, we would expect to see this volume of flu cases in September, so it has come early this year.”
Winter flu season in the UAE, when vaccinations are administered, typically doesn't start until September, when schools start a new term.
Cases usually increase in October and November and can continue through to June – typically in two waves.
What steps to take if you test positive
In Abu Dhabi
After receiving a positive PCR result, isolate yourself immediately and inform anyone you have come into contact with.
Seha - also known as Abu Dhabi Health Services Company - will call after you to ask if anyone else has been exposed, make a note of where you live and work as well as any symptoms you may have, offer advice and explain protocols.
Following your first positive result, you will be asked to test a second time.
You must remain in home isolation for five days, during which your Alhosn app, the UAE's test and tracing platform, will appear as red.
If you develop strong symptoms, visit Sheikh Khalifa Medical City for treatment.
Following the completion of home isolation, the app will automatically turn green, meaning you can leave your home again, and you will be able to download a medical note to submit to your HR.
Isolate yourself immediately in a separate room after getting your positive PCR result and immediately inform your direct manager and HR department.
Install the Covid-19 DXB App and follow the required steps.If you do not have any symptoms, you still have to complete the 10-day home or institutional isolation. You don't have to undergo another PCR test once the isolation period is complete.
If the confirmed case begins to develop any symptoms, he/she can call the Dubai Health Authority toll-free number on 800 342 to book a virtual medical consultation through the “Doctor for Every Citizen” service or book an appointment at a Covid-19 assessment centre.
On completing the isolation period, the confirmed case will get a clearance certificate via SMS.