Pathologist notes an unusual trend in summer cases and explains patient benefits of testing

The 2018 and 2019 flu seasons are morphing into each other, with a remarkably high number of cases during the summer and autumn months.

“It is really unusual that we have had continued flu and have not returned to our usual baseline,” says Dr Jenny Robson, a clinical microbiologist and infectious disease physician at Sullivan Nicolaides Pathology in Queensland.

She says flu season usually peaks between May and October when there is a surge in cases after a marked drop-off in summer. But this year has been different, according to national Department of Health figures and the infections barometer on Sullivan Nicolaides Pathology’s website.

Dr Robson says it is not yet possible to predict how bad the 2019 flu strains will be, but there have already been more than 60 flu-related deaths this year. She says that the main advantages of having a flu test is that it allows GPs to prescribe antiviral medication in a timely manner particularly to those at high risk of complications such as the elderly, the very young and those who have chronic medical conditions.

Testing also rules out the need for antibiotics as there is no reason to give antibiotics for a flu virus unless the patient has a complication that involves a bacterial infection. Patients should not expect to be prescribed an antibiotic for the flu.

About 40% of influenza tests performed by Dr Robson’s laboratory prove positive for flu at peak season, but most modern laboratories typically perform a suite of tests that excludes or confirms several other important viruses, such as respiratory syncytial virus, parainfluenza virus and human metapneumovirus.

“People like to know what their diagnosis is. And doctors get a lot more information from tests these days. It is important to know what other viruses are circulating, which is why we publish weekly data on our website.”

Dr Robson says having a test has several other advantages for patients with flu-like symptoms:

  • It is possible to get a diagnosis quickly, often within 24 hours.
  • If patients know they have flu, they are more likely to stay at home and take care not to infect other people.
  • GPs can find out if the patient is in contact with high-risk people and offer preventative antivirals.
  • The information collected by pathologists helps determine how the circulating virus has changed compared with previous years, which is essential for the development of an effective vaccine for the next year.
  • Resistance to antiviral treatments can be monitored.

*IMAGE CREDIT: Influenza A virus H3N2, part of the Vivid Sydney installation Beautiful and Dangerous.