That’s because the rate of positive flu tests has been above 5 per cent all year, due to the «abnormally high numbers of flu cases over the warmer months», NSW Health’s director of communicable diseases Vicky Sheppeard said.
But the steep rise in flu cases from the end of April up to May 12, and an increase in emergency department presentations of people with flu-like symptoms, prompted NSW Health to declare the winter flu season is now upon us, three weeks shy of winter.
NSW Health districts of Northern and Western Sydney had the highest rates of flu, and emergency departments in Western and South Western Sydney recorded the biggest increase in presentations.
Nine elderly people in NSW aged-care facilities have died of the infection.
The latest surveillance report prompted NSW Health to again urge the public to get a flu vaccination.
«Vaccination is your best protection against the flu, so we encourage everyone who can to get vaccinated as soon as possible,» Dr Sheppeard said.
«There are plentiful supplies of influenza vaccine and we urge parents of children under five years of age and others vulnerable to influenza to visit their GP as soon as possible,» she said.
But she urged everyone to get the flu jab to build immunity in the community.
«It could save your life,» Dr Sheppeard said.
More than 1.3 million doses of seasonal flu vaccines had been distributed as of May 12.
Flu season lasts roughly 12 weeks and usually peaks at the six-week mark. In the horrific 2017 flu season, the rate of positive flu tests spilled over 50 per cent.
Dr Sheppeard said the severity of this year’s flu would depend on the match between the vaccines and the circulating strains, whether the strains «drift», and how many people get vaccinated.
So far, the vaccines have been a good match, «which is good news and something we’ll watch closely», Dr Sheppeard said.
The vaccines are now available at GPs and Aboriginal Medical Services. Most council and community health services also routinely provide childhood vaccination services.
«It’s important to act now because it takes about two weeks for the vaccine to become fully effective, and children under nine years of age, having the shot for the first time require two doses, one month apart.»
Flu shots are also free, under the National Immunisation Program, for pregnant women, people over 65, Aboriginal people and those with medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes and heart problems.
The NSW government’s $22.75 million statewide immunisation programs includes $2.6 million for free flu shots to children up to five years of age and a $1.5 million immunisation and influenza awareness campaign.
Kate Aubusson is Health Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.