Hospitals are stocking up on seasonal flu vaccines, as doctors brace for an influx of patients this winter at the same time as they are dealing with coronavirus.
Both viruses can cause similar symptoms. While the vast majority of people with the flu do not need hospital treatment, the elderly and those with underlying conditions can be more severely affected.
“We have seen co-infections in both viruses, because the immunity is weakened to the point where patients become vulnerable to both at the same time,” said Dr Fadi Baladi, medical director at hospital group Burjeel and an expert in respiratory diseases.
“We need to look how to protect our communities against influenza because this season is going to be hugely challenging with both viruses circulating.
“I expect more people to be aware of the risk of viruses like influenza and a big demand for vaccines compared to previous years because of what’s happened with corona.”
Dr Abhilash Ramachandran Nair, an internal medicine specialist at Aster Hospital, in Dubai’s Al Qusais district, expects most hospitals to have begun crisis planning for an outbreak of influenza.
“Hospitals will be receiving new batches of vaccines in the coming weeks, and people will be advised to get the flu shot once it is available,” he said.
"It will become more important this year than previously, as there is still a risk of Covid-19 cases returning in greater numbers later in the year. That will put a strain on hospital resources so it is important people take responsibility for their health and get the influenza vaccine."
While there are four different influenza viruses, only two types cause seasonal epidemics. Flu vaccines are developed each year. Doctors test for influenza via a nasal swab, similar to Covid-19, but results can usually be seen within minutes in a hospital setting, instead of the 24 hours for a PCR Covid-19 test.
Dr Baladi hopes medics will soon be able to diagnose influenza and Covid-19 from the same sample.
"Everyone around the world is pushing to develop a diagnostic test kit for Covid in a similar to way to how we check for flu," he said. "We anticipate a testing kit capable of testing for both viruses from the same sample will be available soon. It will be much more practical and make all our lives easier."
Virologists and pharmaceutical companies try to stay ahead of the virus by predicting how severe an outbreak may be.
Because flu viruses are constantly mutating, a vaccine's composition is also reviewed and updated each year. More than 100 research centres across 100 nations conduct annual surveillance by testing thousands of patient samples each year. That research is collated by the laboratories and sent to five World Health Organisation centres in the US, UK, Australia, Japan and China to find the most effective vaccine for the coming season.
“We have already planned to increase our supplies of flu vaccine this winter when it is available, but that is dependent on manufacturers meeting our demands,” said Dr Baladi, who works at Burjeel Day Surgery Centre on Reem Island, where 550 shots where administered during the last flu season.
“Flu and Covid can exist together, only time will tell how often we will see that.
“If you have both simultaneously, it could be very serious.
“People still do not take influenza seriously enough or know about how severe symptoms can be. With what has happened with Covid this year, maybe that will change.”
Influenza usually peaks in November and December, with a second peak in February.
Hospitals should start receiving supplies of vaccines in September to distribute in October, because it takes weeks to develop antibodies.
Flu symptoms typically last days, and can include fever, persistent cough, sore throat and runny nose.
These symptoms can also be found in Covid-19 patients, but tend to last considerably longer.
Low flu numbers in southern hemisphere gives medics hope
Low numbers of flu cases recorded in the southern hemisphere could be a sign that this year’s season may not be as severe as some fear.
Australia recorded only 36 flu-related deaths from January to June, down from 430 the previous year. Meanwhile, Chile recorded 1,134 seasonal respiratory infections during its flu season this year, considerably down from the 20,949 recorded last year.
Increased awareness of contagion risks and the adoption of social distancing and other precautions could have contributed to the success.
Although government figures on vaccine coverage was not available for influenza, NMC Hospitals delivered 35,700 of the Dh42 jabs to residents in 2019.
Dr Abhilash Ramachandran Nair, an internal medicine specialist at Aster Hospital, in Dubai's Al Qusais district, expects most hospitals to have begun crisis planning for an outbreak of influenza.
In the UAE, advice to protect against seasonal flu was extended to all age groups last year, rather than only the vulnerable such as young children, the elderly or those with existing chronic health conditions.
For the first time, people in Abu Dhabi could get vaccinated at home by the Department of Health. Although government figures on vaccine coverage was not available for influenza, NMC Hospitals delivered 35,700 of the Dh42 jabs to residents in 2019.