Will we have a worse-than-normal flu season this year?

sick with the flu
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After the COVID-19 pandemic made the last two flu seasons virtually non-existent, the influenza virus is poised to return this year with a vengeance.

That's the word from health experts who are expecting a worse-than-normal flu season this winter. For proof, they point to Australia, where the flu season runs from May to September. The country recently saw its worse flu season in five years.

"We often look to Australia and the southern hemisphere as a signal of what we may expect," Dr. John Brownstein, an epidemiologist at Boston Children's Hospital, told ABC News. "Obviously, it's not a perfect 1-to-1 match but, more often than not, the severity of the flu season in Australia is a good correlate of what we might expect, and it helps us prepare."

Flu cases in Australia peaked about two months earlier than usual and were three times higher than average, according to government surveillance reports reviewed by ABC News. At its peak, more than 30,000 cases were being reported per week.

"The Southern Hemisphere has had a pretty bad flu season, and it came on early," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Bloomberg. "Influenza, as we all have experienced over many years, can be a serious disease — particularly when you have a bad season."

Because the U.S. flu season generally starts in October and peaks between December and February, health experts recommend getting a flu shot before Halloween.

"The most important thing people can do is to get vaccinated against influenza," Vanderbilt University Professor William Schaffner told Prevention. "People have been so preoccupied with COVID that they've forgotten about influenza, but the flu can also be severe."

For the last two flu seasons, COVID-19 restrictions like masking and social distancing have kept infection rates at bay. This is the first winter those restrictions have been lifted in most areas of the country.

"People are interacting closely again and there are very few mandates," Thomas Russo, M.D., professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, told Prevention. "That's a set-up for increased transmission of influenza and other respiratory viruses."

Last year, the U.S. recorded an estimated 8 million to 13 million flu cases and 5,000 to 14,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That came after a record-setting 2020-2021 flu season with around 2,000 reported cases. Pre-pandemic, 35 million infections and 20,000 deaths were reported during the 2019-2020 flu season.

The CDC recommends an annual flu vaccine for everyone ages 6 months and older. This year's vaccine is designed to protect against four different flu viruses, including two influenza A viruses and two influenza B viruses, according to the CDC. It takes about two weeks for protection to develop after vaccination.

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