Flu season.Photo Allan Reinikka / The Morning Bulletin
Flu season.Photo Allan Reinikka / The Morning Bulletin Allan Reinikka ROK030516apharmac

Spike in flu cases prompts early warning

STRAINS of the influenza virus are already showing strong signs of life with influenza B notifications in northern NSW residents up 49 cases for the first quarter of 2018 compared to the same period last year.

Last year Australia experienced one of the worst flu outbreaks on record and experts are urging people to start planning for their flu vaccine now to prevent further spread of the disease.

Director of North Coast Public Health Paul Corben said recent numbers were a reflection of the continuing circulation of a number of influenza viruses.

Mr Corben said part of the cause of the 2017 flu pandemic was one of the influenza A virus strands mutating, so it "wasn't quite as susceptible to the vaccine used last year".

The "strong promotion of testing" may also have contributed to the abnormal numbers, he said.

"There is comprehensive flu surveillance within NSW but also nationally and internationally ... influenza is seen as one of the organisms that could cause a worldwide pandemic," he said.

"It's a virus that loves to swap its DNA with other forms of flu virus, so a flu virus that was highly pathogenic, could have disastrous consequences worldwide."

But Mr Corben said the latest vaccine now contains elements which target four flu viruses - two forms of influenza A and two forms of influenza B.

He said they were reviewed each year.

"The southern hemisphere watches what's happening in the northern hemisphere so they can make the best assessment of what the best composition of the vaccine will be for the anticipated likely viruses circulating in the southern hemisphere during flu season," Mr Corben said.

He said July through to September tended to be the worst months for flu outbreaks and now was a good time to get vaccinated, because the vaccines were just becoming available.

"They are most effective in the first three to four months, so if people get vaccinated in April and May then that makes them well prepared for the height of the flu season," he said.

Health services would like to see a higher uptake of the flu vaccination in pregnant women.

The uptake of whooping cough vaccine on the North Coast was about 85-90% in pregnant women but half that for women choosing to be vaccinated against the flu.

"The flu can lead to much more serious complications... even healthy people can die from complications arising from having influenza," Mr Corben said.

Staying home when ill and practising good hygiene helped stop the spread of the virus, he said.