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After a year with virtually no flu or other viruses, the illnesses are back and with a vengeance.
Social distancing and mask guidelines put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic inadvertently prevented the spread of germs and bacteria.
As those mitigation measures are lifted now, the flu is starting to spread once again.
Cases of the flu are getting more severe as well because people’s immune systems are not ready to immediately start fighting germs once again after a year of relative safety.
Young children and babies are especially vulnerable, and serve as vectors for the spread of viruses.
A rare summer-flu season is emerging this year, with the effects of the common virus being stronger than ever (file image)
‘Frequent exposure to various pathogens primes or jazzes up the immune system to be ready to respond to that pathogen,’ Dr Paul Skolnik, an immunovirologist and chair of internal medicine at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, told The New New York Times.
‘If you’ve not had those exposures, your immune system may be a little slower to respond or doesn’t respond as fully, leading to greater susceptibility to some respiratory infections and sometimes longer or more protracted symptoms.’
Cases of influenza, rhinovirus and other common viral infections floored last year.
Common colds and the flu – which are caused by respiratory viruses – were almost non-existent in 2020 as they had little chance to spread from person-to-person.
Cases are already on the rise now that pandemic related restrictions are being lifted, though.
Texas, the first state to fully reopen back in March, saw a surge in respiratory viruses almost immediately after lifting pandemic mandates.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is making a surge this summer across the U.S. south, a rare occurrence for the virus that usually takes its toll in the fall and winter months.
Some experts even predicted this type of surge.
The cases of RSV and other types of the flu are more serious than before as well, with many suffering stronger symptoms that are lasting longer than infections in previous years.
This summer-flu season is particularly dangerous to the oldest and youngest people, with RSV causing up to 500 deaths a year among children under five and 14,000 deaths a year in people over 65.
New Zealand and Australia, two countries who were among the most successful at controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, are also seeing surges of RSV, per the Times.
Things are especially dire in New Zealand, where a surge and RSV cases left many children under the age of two hospitalized.
Babies in particular have been struck hard by the surge of the flu, with some parts of New Zealand seeing many infants hospitalized with RSV
‘I haven’t seen anything like this in 20 years of working as a virologist,’ said Dr Sue Huang, director of the World Health Organization’s National Influenza Centre, told The Times about the situation in New Zealand.
‘There’s usually a degree of pre-existing immunity due to the previous winter. When you don’t have that kind of protection, it’s a bit like a wildfire.
‘The fire can just continue, and the chain of transmission keeps going.’
Experts tell The Times that the surge among kids is partially because the virus now has twice as many fresh immune systems to infect than before.
Babies born last year may not have their immune systems built up to normal as their bodies have not been exposed to many pathogens.
Those babies join ones that were born this year, who also do not have natural immunity to many pathogens, and weaker, un-tested, immune systems.
The doubling of the pool of easy-to-infect children has allowed virus’s like RSV to wreak havoc among our youngest populations.
Preventing these types of surges are tough, though experts recommend following the classic guidelines such as frequent hand washing and covering coughs and sneezes to combat the flu.
Wearing a mask when in public could also be a valuable practice for people who have someone in their household who may be vulnerable to respiratory illnesses, a practice already common in some Asian countries during flu season.