[WATCH] Influenza cases skyrocket as doctors talk of ‘worst flu season ever’

Around half of Malta’s population might contract influenza by end of winter, vaccine might not work in cases of infections with different strain

Influenza cases skyrocket as doctors talk of ‘worst flu season ever.’

The influenza season has been particularly bad this year, with Mater Dei hospital being swamped with people presenting severe flu symptoms.

‘Worst flu season I have ever seen’

Shirley Farrugia, a general practitioner with around 30 years of experience, said this winter brought with it the worst flu season she has ever seen.

“We saw more cases than usual this year, and they started earlier. We have been seeing flu cases since the second week of December, and there was a large surge after the Christmas period. The health authorities are predicting that, by the end of winter, around half of Malta’s population would have fallen ill with influenza,” she said.

“We can confirm these predictions, as doctors have been having large numbers of patients who present flu symptoms - rapid onsets of fatigue, high fever, nausea, dizziness and eventually a dry cough which turns productive.”

Flu self-limiting in healthy patients

Not all cases are serious, she explained, and in most healthy patients, influenza is a self-limiting condition which patients can recover from.

However, influenza can become a serious issue in people with underlying health problems, and in such cases there can be complications as a result of the virus.

“Influenza is quite contagious and is classified as a ‘droplet infection’ – one which can be easily transmitted from person to person through airborne droplets propelled through sneezing and coughing, and through touching surfaces with hands which have come into contact with the droplets,” she said.

“People spend more time indoors in winter, and this helps the flu to spread. We recommend prevention first – sick people should avoid coming in contact with vulnerable persons such as young children, the elderly, or pregnant women,” she added.

Other people who have a greater risk of contracting the virus include people who work with children, health practitioners and those with pre-existing medical conditions.

Vaccine most effective prevention

The most effective way of preventing an influenza infection is to take the vaccine, she asserted, and this is available to everyone for free at government health centres.

“We knew, through statistical reports coming from Australia’s 2017 winter, that we would be having a severe influenza season,” she noted, “And our health authorities requested that doctors recommend their patients to take the flu vaccine, which was this year made available earlier than usual.”

However, there are cases when people who took the vaccine still fell ill. One of the reasons for this is that they might have been infected with a different strain of the virus, present in the community, than the one they were vaccinated against.

“I believe we have reached or almost reached the peak in terms of number of cases, and we hope that by the end of January we would have seen almost all the cases, as the season usually last around six to seven weeks” she maintained.

Antivirals only in cases of predisposing conditions

In healthy patients, the most important thing to do when falling ill with influenza is to avoid going to school or work.

Patients should then take medicine which targets the symptoms of the virus, such as fever-lowering medication, nausea medication, and adequate hydration and electrolyte replacement in cases of diarrhea.

“We do not prescribe antiviral medication unless the patient concerned has predisposing conditions, in which case the medication is administered in hospital,” she said.

Dr Shirley Farrugia, general practitioner, said this winter brought with it the highest number of flu cases she has seen in 30 years of practice
Dr Shirley Farrugia, general practitioner, said this winter brought with it the highest number of flu cases she has seen in 30 years of practice

Parents tell of two-week long flu bouts

A number of parents we spoke to as they took their children to school, said their children had been ill with long bouts of flu this winter, with several of them saying their family had not taken the vaccine.

“Both my children fell ill with periods of flu lasting two weeks,” one mother said, “I had not vaccinated them, however, as I was worried by those who said they fell quite ill after taking it. However I might reconsider this next winter, especially since the flu was particularly strong this season.”

“We did not take the vaccine, and thank fully my children have not fallen ill,” another mother said, “However, other people in my family fell ill for periods of around a week and half. I think it’s important for children not to go to school if ill, to avoid spreading the virus.”

Another parent said that given the large increase in flu cases reported in the news, she had decided to give her children the vaccine this week.