SYDNEY - Australia's annual influenza season started unusually early in 2019, and already there are more than 144,000 confirmed cases. At least 231 people have died, so far, including some children, although most of the victims were frail, elderly Australians.
This year is likely to be one of Australia's most severe for influenza, and the government, worried about a vaccine shortage, has ordered 400,000 more doses.
Dr. Chris Zappala, vice president of the Australian Medical Association, hopes the community can cope.
"We've had millions and millions of vaccines through the country already, and we hope it's enough. I think we can put some trust in the epidemiologists who do this every year. Remember, what's happened here is we've got an extremely wily organism that mutates and makes things difficult," Zappala said.
Multiple flu viruses circulate each year, and they are broadly grouped into two types: A and B. A particularly potent strain may well be to blame for an early start to Australia's influenza season. Experts hope it will end before its usual peak in August, the last month of winter.
But Professor Brendan Murphy, Australia's Chief Medical Officer, says it is hard to tell.
"The one thing you can say definitely about flu is that you can't predict (it)," Murphy said. "This season may be a very early season that may fade away and not have the big, late winter peak or it may continue. We just don't know. That is why we recommend everybody get vaccinated and be prepared."
Australia suffered its worst flu season on record in 2017, when more than 250,000 cases were reported. More than 1,100 people died, slightly less than those killed in road accidents.
The government recommends that every Australian older than 6 months should get a flu shot every year.
Flu season in Australia usually runs from June to September, peaking in August.