This year’s flu season was practically nonexistent with only 2,000 confirmed cases compared to 200,000 cases normally reported, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
According to NBC News, experts say that the CDC data represents a fraction of the actual number of flu cases which could actually range from 9 million to 45 million annually. They cite COVID-19 mitigation measures prevented flu transmission this season but warned that next year could be a bad one for influenza.
The CDC says that the flu numbers in the U.S. have plummeted 98% this year. The reasons for the dramatic decline include fewer people traveling, more people wearing masks, and social distancing, along with more Americans getting the flu shot, according to reports.
More adults got the flu shot in 2020 compared to the previous year, says Healthline. But although flu activity is currently low, experts warn we could still see an uptick in cases in 2021.
“Even though it’s smoldering out there, it could take off at any time,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, according to Healthline.
“We’ve gone over a year without a significant portion of the population getting infected with flu and getting immunity because of that,” Dr. Andy Pekosz, a professor in the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health told NBC News. “That could mean that the susceptible people in the population to flu are going to be increasing.”
People who get the flu develop some immunity to the virus. But without a significant flu season this year, there could be more than double the number of people without prior immunity in the country. And that could mean more deaths, especially among the young.
“With low level immunity, that could bring more cases,” said Dr. Scott Hensley, associate professor of microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. “We could see more pediatric deaths and, concurrent with that, a rise in cases in the whole community. That’s because overall population immunity is predicted to be low.”
Hensley reported that influenza is a major health threat to our nation, causing 30,000 deaths annually during a typical season. He added that this year, there does not seem to be a variety of flu strains in circulation. But some experts counter that we may not be seeing many strains because the reported cases are so few.
This could cause a problem in identifying the correct strain to formulate the annual flu vaccine, says NBC News.
“Since we have had so few cases, we’re using a small number to make our choices from,” said Pekosz. “There could be strains circulating at a lower number that could come to dominate. We worry about that normally in every flu season, but usually we have a much larger data set to choose from.”
Scientists usually scout which flu viruses are predominant in the southern hemisphere to prepare the northern hemisphere for flu activity to come, says NBC News. The flu season for the southern hemisphere starts in June and could provide clues for what the rest of the world can expect in terms of flu activity and predominant strains.
Hensley said that even if the next flu vaccine is not a perfect match for the circulating strains of the virus, it does provide protection and reduces the risk of hospitalization.
“A lot of this is out of our hands,” he said, “The one thing you can do is to get vaccinated. If there was ever a year to get vaccinated, this is the year to do that.”
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