Flu may be “nonexistent this fall” due to COVID-19 hygiene measures, doctor says

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A top autoimmune disease expert said that the flu could be “nonexistent this fall” as the U.S. moves into the colder months while still grappling with the coronavirus pandemic

“We may not have the flu at all, but we should all get vaccinated,” Dr. Bob Lahita, chairman of the Department of Medicine at St. Joseph’s Healthcare System, told CBSN anchor Anne-Marie Green. 

The World Health Organization estimates that each year there are roughly 3-5 million severe influenza cases globally and up to 500,000 deaths annually linked to the disease.  

The United States, the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis, has seen over 150,000 coronavirus-linked deaths and over 4 million confirmed cases since March. Medical experts have been concerned about what the surging number of cases could mean as students return to school and the annual flu season starts.

One former U.S. health official, Dr. Rick Bright, testified in a Congressional hearing that the country could face the “darkest winter in modern history” if the pandemic is not controlled.

However, efforts to mitigate the coronavirus may pay off in other ways.

Countries such as China, Canada and the United Kingdom have recently reported a significant drop in influenza cases following global social distancing measures to contain the coronavirus, according to a report from Reuters.

The report also states that South Korea’s most recently weekly infectious disease numbers saw “an 83% decrease in cases from the same period a year earlier.” In Australia, which is currently in winter, experts are seeing significantly lower rates of hospital admissions for non-COVID-19 infectious diseases for the time of year. However, WHO warned in a recent report that influenza numbers may need to be viewed with “caution” because of the pandemic hindering some countries’ reporting ability.

Dr. Lahita predicted a similar decrease in U.S. influenza cases “because of our mask-wearing and our hand-washing and our social distancing.”

“I think it will be very interesting to watch this,” he said. 

Some experts worry a lack of flu infections this year could negatively impact immunity in future flu seasons.

“It may be that if we don’t have infections this season there will be more vulnerable people next season, that is definitely something that we will have to carefully monitor,” said Ben Marais, an infectious disease expert at the University of Sydney told Reuters.

According to Dr. Lahita, the issue of immunity for both the coronavirus and influenza could have a simple solution in the future, once a vaccine is developed. 

“I think the novel coronavirus is going to be with us for many, many years,” he said. “However, there is hope going forward that in 2021, for example, we will have both vaccines combined together, so that when you get vaccinated for the flu you get vaccinated for COVID-19.”

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