Flu tracking system captures COVID-19 impact

Monday, 19 April 2021

One of the largest crowd-sourced public health surveillance systems in the world, known for detecting the spread of influenza, has revealed the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically impacted the 2020 flu season.

Woman with flu under a blanket and sneezing
Everyone can participate in FluTracking, a crowd-sourced public health surveillance system

Developed by Hunter New England Health and the University of Newcastle, FluTracking started in 2006 with only 400 participants. In 2020 the number of people across Australia and New Zealand providing weekly data peaked at more than 150,000.

The number of influenza cases in 2020 was incredibly low compared to previous years, with COVID containment measures also protecting the population against flu.

Dr Craig Dalton, Hunter New England Public Health Physician and Conjoint Associate Professor with the University of Newcastle and the Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI), and FluTracking founder, said the number of laboratory confirmed flu cases in January 2021 was just one per cent of the cases seen in January 2020, prior to COVID-19 social distancing measures becoming part of daily life.

A typical flu season in Australia results in about 60,000 infections nationally in peak months. In 2020 that dropped to less than 200 cases per month in July and August.

“We were shocked to see influenza rates drop week by week as COVID controls were instituted," Dr Dalton said.

"Ask any flu expert and we would say it would not be so easy to stop flu transmission. What 2020 taught us is that physical distancing, hand washing and mask wearing can dramatically reduce the incidence of flu in the community.

“The days of turning up to work with a cold or flu are probably gone forever. Masks may become part of our winter wardrobe.

“It will be interesting to see whether these behavioural changes will continue to keep flu in check this season.”

Taking only 15 seconds to complete, the weekly web-based survey collects data about flu-like symptoms, it harnesses the power of the Internet and community spirit to detect the potential spread of influenza.

Participants who record a symptom will be asked further questions about time absent from normal duties, visits to health care providers, results of laboratory tests for influenza or COVID-19, and current vaccine status.

Dr Dalton said FluTracking had evolved over time to help health professionals monitor seasonal influenza, pandemic influenza and now COVID-19.

“FluTracking can fill in the gaps in information not captured by hospitals and health services. Many people with flu-like symptoms don’t enter the health system and therefore aren’t counted,” Dr Dalton said.

“With FluTracking we can measure the community level impact of these diseases, capturing information about people who showed symptoms but did not consult a doctor or present for a COVID test.”

Other results from the more than 2 million FluTracking surveys submitted in 2020 include:

  • 85 per cent of FluTrackers were vaccinated against flu
  • The age group with the highest incidence of flu-like symptoms was 0-4 years
  • The most common symptom reported was coughing
  • 56,201 COVID tests were reported
  • FluTracking helped track health impacts of the bushfires in December 2019 and January 2020

In 2018 New Zealand adopted FluTracking, and now has a greater community participation rate than Australia. This year Hong Kong will take up the system, a region with a long history of influenza monitoring and research. There are plans to continue expanding FluTracking throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Everyone is welcome to participate in FluTracking (join through www.flutracking.net). It takes 30 seconds to join and 15-20 seconds per week to do the survey. Participants receive a link to a weekly report and an updated map of the latest respiratory symptom activity in their area.

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


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