Australia has just emerged from a hard-hitting flu season. Reported cases of flu and flu-related deaths during the coldest months of June and July were among the highest on record.

“This year we saw a perfect storm of all three major flu strains — Influenza AH1N1, Influenza AH3N2, and Influenza B — all circulating at the same time,” says Dr. Paul Van Buynder, Public Health Physician with the Gold Coast Health Services in Australia and Chairman of the Immunisation Coalition and former Chief Medical Health Officer for the Fraser Health Authority in Vancouver, BC.

According to Dr. Van Buynder, this sharp rise in Australia’s influenza cases and deaths was exacerbated by two main issues: very low vaccination rates in children — believed to be “super-spreaders” of the virus — and poor vaccine effectiveness against Influenza AH3N2. “This strain affects mainly the elderly, and because the circulating virus drifted away from the vaccine strain administered, it didn’t work this year.”

This led to more than double the cases of the previous record — leading to an increase of hospitalizations by 80 percent and a large number of deaths, especially in senior care institutions.

With advanced age and a weakened immune system, seniors face high risks from influenza complications. “Over 90 percent of influenza hospitalizations and deaths occur in older persons, and many who survive it lose a lot of daily functioning and independence,” says Dr. Van Buynder.

Vaccine effectiveness is key to preventing the virus’ spread.  “For many years the vaccines available worked poorly or not at all in this age group, those who most needed it,” explains Dr. Van Buynder. Recently developed enhanced vaccines have been designed to be more effective with both the elderly and general population. “Newer and stronger vaccines such as high dose and adjuvanted vaccines offer more protection than current vaccines and are more likely to work better when the virus drifts.” In fact, published studies have shown that the adjuvanted vaccine may offer protection against circulating influenza strains that have changed, and are mismatched — otherwise known as antigenic drift — with what is included in standard vaccines.

We all have a role to play in stopping the spread of infectious illnesses like the flu. As our own cold season approaches, and with the lessons learned from the Southern Hemisphere, Canadians can do their part by getting vaccinated.