Early flu season prompts launch of innovative tracking system

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Flu activity is already in full swing with influenza rates estimated to be two to three times higher than normal in Australia, prompting the annual online health surveillance system, FluTracking, to launch early this year.

With more than 40,000 Australians reporting their flu symptoms every week, and its expansion to New Zealand last year, FluTracking is the largest crowdsourcing influenza surveillance system in the world.

Founder and co-ordinator of the program, Dr Craig Dalton, said flu season was off to an early start with flu activity this year already exceeding that of winter last year.

“Influenza-like illness in March this year was much higher than normal – it was higher than the peak activity in winter 2018,” Dr Dalton said.

“Laboratory reports suggest influenza rates between January and April this year are two to three times higher than previous years.

“While it’s impossible to identify the exact cause of spiked flu activity in autumn, one possible factor could be high rates of influenza in travellers returning from the northern hemisphere,” Dr Dalton said.

A joint initiative of the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Population Health and the Hunter Medical Research Institute, FluTracking is a system that can rapidly determine the onset and severity of influenza in Australia and New Zealand.

Usually launching in May, the program is now already underway and accessible to the community to report and track flu activity following the early influx of influenza cases this year.

Recipient of the 2018 Data Innovation Award in Research Australia’s Health and Medical Research category, Dr Dalton said FluTracking was the only system that proactively engages directly with people in the community to track the frequency and severity of influenza-like illness.

“We rely on data from members of the public to help determine the onset of influenza and better understand the burden and severity of the disease,” Dr Dalton said.

“People can sign up to receive a weekly email survey that takes just 10 seconds to complete. The survey simply asks whether a respondent has had a cough or fever in the past week and whether they have had the annual flu vaccine.

“The information captured paints a valuable picture for health professionals, and the community, of flu outbreak zones communicated through a weekly report and interactive map showing affected areas,” Dr Dalton said.

To minimise the risk of contracting the flu and possible life-threatening complications, people are advised to wash their hands regularly as the disease can spread from contaminated surfaces, as well as person-to-person contact.  The influenza vaccine is recommended, especially for the elderly, those with chronic illness, pregnant women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

To find out more and join the FluTracking community go to www.flutracking.net.

* HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.

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