After a year with virtually no flu or other viruses, the illnesses are back and with a vengeance.
Social distancing guidelines and masks introduced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have inadvertently prevented the spread of germs and bacteria.
Now that those mitigation measures are lifted, the flu is starting to spread again.
Cases of the flu are also getting more serious because people’s immune systems aren’t ready to immediately fight off germs again after a year of relative safety.
Young children and babies are especially vulnerable and serve as vectors for the spread of viruses.
This year marks the beginning of a rare summer flu season, with the effects of the common virus stronger than ever (file image)
“Frequent exposure to various pathogens stimulates or speeds 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, The New New York Times.
“If you haven’t had those exposures, your immune system may respond a little more slowly or not respond as fully, leading to a greater susceptibility to some respiratory infections and sometimes longer or longer-lasting symptoms.”
Cases of flu, rhinovirus and other common viral infections hit rock bottom last year.
Colds and flu – which are caused by respiratory viruses – were almost non-existent in 2020 because they had little chance of spreading from person to person.
However, the number of cases is already rising as the pandemic-related restrictions are lifted.
Texas, the first state to fully reopen in March, saw a surge in respiratory viruses almost immediately after the lifting of pandemic mandates.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is making waves in the southern US this summer, a rare occurrence for the virus that usually takes its toll in the fall and winter months.
Some experts even predicted these kinds of peaks.
Cases of RSV and other types of flu are also more severe than before, with much stronger symptoms lasting longer than infections in previous years.
This summer flu season is particularly dangerous for the oldest and youngest people, with RSV causing up to 500 deaths per year in children under five and 14,000 deaths per year in people over 65.
New Zealand and Australia, two countries that have been among the most successful in managing the COVID-19 pandemic, are also seeing increases in RSV, according to the Times.
Things are especially dire in New Zealand, where a wave and RSV cases have left many children under the age of two hospitalized.
Babies in particular have been hit hard by the flu wave, with many babies with RSV hospitalized in some parts of New Zealand
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my 20 years as a virologist,” Dr Sue Huang, director of the World Health Organization’s National Influenza Center, told The Times about the situation in New Zealand.
“Because of last winter, there is usually some degree of pre-existing immunity. If you don’t have that kind of protection, it’s a bit like wildfire.
‘The fire can continue as usual, and the chain of transmission continues.’
Experts tell The Times that the increase among children is partly because the virus now has twice as many new immune systems to infect than before.
Babies born last year may not have their immune systems built up normally because their bodies have not been exposed to many pathogens.
Those babies join those born this year, who also lack natural immunity to many pathogens, and weaker, untested immune systems.
By doubling the number of easily infected children, viruses like RSV have wreaked havoc among our youngest populations.
Preventing these kinds of spikes is difficult, although experts recommend following the classic guidelines, such as washing hands regularly and coughing and sneezing to fight the flu.
Wearing a mask in public can also be a valuable habit for people who have someone in their household who may be vulnerable to respiratory diseases, a practice common in some. Asian countries during the flu season.