Deaths rise in biggest flu season on record
Six residents at a Tasmanian nursing home are confirmed dead in Australia's influenza epidemic. Courtesy Seven News Melbourne.
Victoria's deadly influenza season has claimed the life of an eight-year-old girl, prompting warnings for people to not dismiss symptoms as "simply a cold".
The child died at Angliss Hospital in Upper Ferntree Gully in Melbourne's outer-east on Friday, a health department spokesperson said.
The girl, whose identity and school have not been publicly identified, was a Cub Scout, Fairfax Media has confirmed.
She was preparing to attend Victoria's Cuboree at Gembrook in the second week of school holidays.
A camp-out held every three years, Cuboree is this year set to attract 3700 children and 1700 adults.
The girl's death follows that of young father Ben Ihlow on Father's Day.
The deadly strain of flu has killed at least 97 people in Victoria, including 95 in aged-care facilities, so far this year.
Hospitals struggle amid 'horrific' flu season
Public hospitals are scrambling to cope with the influx of patients, cancelling some elective surgery and making arrangements with private facilities to house the overflow of patients.
Additional ambulances had been introduced to meet the increased number of callouts.
Many health workers, including those who had been vaccinated, had also been hit.
"We are having a horrific flu season," Health Minister Jill Hennessy told 3AW radio.
"This is an influenza strain that is able to impact the young, the elderly, the well and the unwell."
Ms Hennessy, who is hosting talks about this year's flu crisis with experts on Monday, said flu cases had doubled or even tripled across the eastern states.
In Victoria, the number of laboratory-confirmed cases had doubled and it was not known if the season had reached its peak, she said.
"We are dealing with a horror flu season and we're not quite sure when or where it will finish," Ms Hennessy said.
"Every day we all beg for advice that we may have peaked and then we see things drop off a bit and then them escalate again."
She urged Victorians not to dismiss flu symptoms as "simply a cold" or "'man flu'".
"Get to the doctor, call Nurse on Call, call an ambulance if you feel someone is very unwell. But don't ignore the flu symptoms," Ms Hennessy said.
"It needs to be taken seriously."
13,000 Victorians struck down by flu
More than 160,000 people have contracted the flu in Australia so far this year, Health Department figures show, compared with 75,818 recorded cases for the same time last year.
In Victoria, there have been just over 13,000 cases.
The Royal Children's Hospital treated a total of 290 confirmed flu cases up to September 14, an increase of 126 on the same period last year.
Monash Children's Hospital has treated 247 children for flu since June 1 at its Clayton, Dandenong and Casey hospitals.
It is estimated that flu contributes to more than 3000 deaths in Australia each year.
The total death toll in Victoria remains unknown, as hospitals and doctors are not required to notify the department of flu-related deaths that take place elsewhere.
There have been at least 97 deaths from the flu in 2017. Australian Bureau of Statistics show 2015 had previously been the state's worst year for flu deaths, with 57 recorded. (Figures for 2016 are not yet available.)
The health department is unable to say what strain of flu the girl died from, for privacy reasons.
The Angliss Hospital has also declined to comment.
The education department said it was in contact with the girl's school to offer support to anyone affected by her death.
"The death of any child is tragic and our thoughts are with the family of this student," a spokeswoman said.
Death a reminder of flu danger
Authorities say the girl's death should remind the public how dangerous influenza is.
People are being advised to get the influenza vaccine (especially if they are considered vulnerable to the virus), practice good hand hygiene and cover their mouth when they cough.
Those who are sick should not go to work, and ill children should be kept away from school, a department spokesman said.
So far, the deaths have been attributed to H3N2, a fast-mutating strain of the flu that is defying medical experts' efforts to stop it.
Australian Medical Association Victoria president Dr Lorraine Baker said the potentially deadly strain was persisting in the community later in the season than normal.
She urged all Victorians to take measures to protect themselves and the community.
"If anyone – and this applies to parents observing their children or for adults themselves – if anyone is running fever, no one would know if it's influenza or another infectious disease and so it's very important to get checked early," she said.
"Given the current severe influenza virus in the community, we recommend you attend your doctor sooner rather than later and not necessarily the emergency department, see your GP first.
"But go early, don't leave it until it's too late"
Dr Baker said people with flu-like symptoms should not run the risk of spreading the respiratory disease to others who may be more likely to suffer severe health consequences.
Health authorities recommend vaccination as defence against influenza, but the vaccine is not funded for children, unless they have medical conditions such as severe asthma that can lead to complications.
Previously healthy children among intensive care patients
GP data shows the rates among Victorian children may be as low as 3 per cent, Monash Children's Hospital head of infection and immunity Professor Jim Buttery said.
Professor Buttery said the flu had put "a decent number" of children in intensive care at Monash, both those with underlying conditions and others who were previously healthy.
The virus had also prompted an increase in group A Streptococcal sepsis, which can be associated with influenza.
Professor Buttery said parents and pregnant women should consider vaccinations, both for themselves and their children.
Flu symptoms manifested differently for everyone and could look simply like "a hot, miserable child with a cold".
GPs would only test for the flu if they thought it would change the way they would manage the patient, Professor Buttery said.
For the overwhelming number of children, flu is not a severe illness and utilising medication like Tamiflu would only reduce symptoms by about a day, he said.
Elderly targeted in free flu vaccine program
More than 4.5 million doses of the influenza vaccine are provided for free by the federal government each year under the National Immunisation Program.
The program targets people aged 65 or older, most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and those with chronic conditions. Pregnant women are also eligible.
Children are not included in the program.
With Emily Woods and Craig Butt