• Tue. Jun 15th, 2021

Australia could be in for a bad winter of colds and flu and the COVID-19 pandemic is partly to blame


Jun 11, 2021


Australia could be in for a bad winter of colds and flu, and the COVID-19 pandemic is partly to blame, an expert says.

Rhinovirus infections, one of the causes of the common cold, have been tracking higher than the average since February.

Robert Booy, a member of Immunisation Coalition, said respiratory infections could be high this winter because lockdowns last year reduced underlying immunity in the community.

Immunisation Coalition is an independent organisation that creates public awareness of the importance of immunisation.


Robert Booy says respiratory infections could be high this winter.

Rhinovirus infections, which cause highly transmissible colds, were high in NSW before the pandemic last year but fell to very low levels during the lockdown.

They rebounded in July when the community began mixing again.

“It’s the classic cold virus that gives you a runny nose and a cough and a touch of fever, and you get better within a week,” Professor Booy said.

Last year’s rhinovirus peak was much higher than the average of the previous four years.

Adenoviruses, which cause colds and gastrointestinal illnesses, also peaked after the lockdown ended.

Unlike influenza, these viruses are circulating at a low level in the community all year because they are so transmissible.

Infections rise in winter when people stay indoors in poorly ventilated homes and offices.

Each infected person passes the virus on to about five to eight others.

The viruses compete with each other when they infect people, which builds immunity.

Professor Booy, who has worked at the University of Sydney since 2005 in the fields of vaccinology, epidemiology and infectious diseases, said the immunity to these common viruses did not develop last year because people were socially distancing during lockdown.

The low level of community immunity could drive another peak in the common cold this winter.

However, social hygiene measures learned during the pandemic could help stop the spread.

Charlotte Hespe, the chair of the NSW branch of the Royal Australian College of GPs, said the numbers of patients with respiratory illnesses were so far around the same as would be expected in a normal year.

“Whether it’s social distancing or people washing their hands, wearing face masks, or working remotely when they have got a virus,” she said.

“It may be that we are seeing less spread in the workplace than we would normally.”

Charlotte Hespe says there is less spread in the workplace.

The flu could also be more prevalent this year.

Influenza infections were at historically low levels in 2020 because the international border closure stopped them from being imported from the northern hemisphere winter.

Professor Booy said some influenza virus was still getting into Australia via returned travellers in hotel quarantine.

He predicted that it would be a mild to moderate year for flu infections beginning in late winter, driven by lower vaccination rates, less social distancing and lower immunity.

“Fewer people can fight off the virus this year because they didn’t have a recent surge in antibodies against flu,” he said.

A record 18 million flu vaccines were released last year, compared with 13 million in 2019.

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