Flu season is expected to be between two and three times higher than normal in Australia this year. In fact, flu activity this year has already exceeded that of last winter, Dr Craig Dalton.
Flue season is off to an early start, and so is an annual health surveillance system, FluTracking, which Dr Dalton founded and now coordinates. It is the largest crowdsourcing influenza surveillance system in the world.
"Influenza-like illness in March this year was much higher than normal - it was higher than the peak activity in winter 2018," Dr Dalton said. "Laboratory reports suggest influenza rates between January and April this year are two to three times higher than previous years. While it's impossible to identify the exact cause of spiked flu activity in autumn, one possible factor could be high rates of influenza in travellers returning from the northern hemisphere."
More than 40,000 Australians have reported flu symptoms via the online surveillance network that last year expanded to cover New Zealand.
The system usually launches annually in May and can rapidly determine the onset and severity of influenza in both countries, but the system has launched earlier this year to report and track flu activity following the early influx of cases.
The program is a joint initiative of the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Population Health and the Hunter Medical Research Institute.
Dr Dalton said FluTracking was the only system that proactively engages directly with people in the community to track the frequency and severity of influenza-like illness.
"We rely on data from members of the public to help determine the onset of influenza and better understand the burden and severity of the disease," Dr Dalton said.
"People can sign up to receive a weekly email survey that takes just 10 seconds to complete. The survey simply asks whether a respondent has had a cough or fever in the past week and whether they have had the annual flu vaccine.
"The information captured paints a valuable picture for health professionals, and the community, of flu outbreak zones communicated through a weekly report and interactive map showing affected areas."
To minimise the risk of contracting the flu and possible life-threatening complications, people are advised to wash their hands regularly as the disease can spread from contaminated surfaces, as well as person-to-person contact. The influenza vaccine is recommended, especially for the elderly, those with chronic illness, pregnant women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
To find out more and join the FluTracking community go to www.flutracking.net.