W.H.O. Numbers Show Cases Of The Flu Are Low So Far

Doctors warn that despite low global flu numbers, people should still be vigilant.
Posted at 5:15 PM, Oct 21, 2020

The latest numbers show flu cases are lower this year globally, but experts are still worried about an influenza and COVID-19 combination overwhelming U.S. hospitals. 

"The activity has been pretty low in the past few weeks," Dr. Wenqing Zhang told Newsy.  

Zhang runs the WHO’s Global Influenza Programme. She tells Newsy globally, influenza activity is at lower levels than expected for this time of the year. 

"Some of the influenza A was circulating in Southeast Asia. In the western part of Africa, also, there's a very low circulation of influenza B and influenza A H3N2," Zhang said.

Zhang says physical distancing, hand washing and mask wearing in public are also likely slowing the spread of the flu. In the southern hemisphere, WHO data shows the season remained low or below baseline. Even with increased testing for influenza in some countries, very few detections were reported.

But Zhang, like many of the health experts we’ve spoken to, says the influenza virus is unpredictable. That’s why hospitals in the U.S., the CDC and the American Medical Association are still worried about flu and COVID-19 colliding this fall and winter. 

"We have different treatments for each of these diseases, that in many ways are not overlapping," Dr. Ben Singer, a pulmonary and critical care specialist, said.

Dr. Ben Singer at Chicago’s Northwestern Medicine tells Newsy that while rare, patients can get COVID-19 and influenza. And the way doctors treat both viruses, can also collide. 

"We know for patients with COVID pneumonia who have severe disease requiring oxygen, that steroid medications like dexamethasone are beneficial. But there is a suggestion in the literature that steroids for severe influenza may actually be harmful," Singer said.

Right now, the best thing, experts are saying, is to keep doing what is good for slowing COVID-19, plus get a flu shot. Singer adds testing is key. 

"We keep emphasizing the need to have widespread access to rapid diagnostic tests so that we can rapidly and accurately determine when somebody presents with those types of symptoms who might have COVID, who might have influenza or who might have another respiratory virus," Singer says.

Right now, there are a handful of FDA-approved tests that can both screen for influenza A and B and the virus that causes COVID-19. And since the flu and COVID have almost identical symptoms, health experts say if you do feel sick, call your doctor and ask to get tested for both.