Three children among 26 dead in Victoria's start to flu season

Authorities have ordered more flu shots this year.
Authorities have ordered more flu shots this year. Photo: Justin McManus

Three children are among the 26 people who have died with the flu in Victoria so far this year, and the number of influenza cases across the state is already nearing the total number recorded last season.

The children were aged three, six and 11 years old. The other 23 people who have died were aged-care residents in nursing homes.

The World Health Organisation warned that the number of flu cases in Australia was the highest in 20 years.

Dr Angie Bone, Deputy Chief Health Officer of the Department of Health and Human Services, said the real figure was most likely much higher.

"It is certainly an unusual flu season. It started much earlier than we would have expected," Dr Bone told 3AW.

There were no known deaths at the same time last year, and just one by late May in the horror 2017 flu season.

"It's difficult to know for certain how to interpret that," Dr Bone said.

She would not call it a "crisis" despite the early deaths, noting the sickness may taper off over winter or never reach the same peak as normal.

Professor Ian Barr, deputy director of the World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza, said the number of summer flu cases was among the worst he'd seen.

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"We haven't seen this level of virus circulating in the last 20 years," Professor Barr said.

"It's concerning because of the large numbers. I think that every year we do see summer cases, so that's not unusual. It's the number that's unusual and the severity is unusual."

Professor Barr said early outbreaks were always concerning, as health authorities were less likely to be prepared.

He said it was difficult to gauge what the early outbreak could mean for the rest of the season. Usually, there would be some summer cases before a dramatic rise in late June or early July, peaking in August or September.

"It's hard to say if we'll continue on like this ... or if it'll be a bit of a dip and we'll resume having larger numbers later in the year.

"At this stage it looks like it's just going to keep going."

The vaccination is free for children aged six months to five years.

Pregnant women, Victorians over 65, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and those with a chronic condition are also eligible for a free flu shot.

The most recent weekly flu report from the department said there had been 1.53 million flu shots given out as at May 10, excluding those bought privately, such as in chemists or through workplace vaccination programs.

The number of diagnosed flu cases is up from 2200 at this time last year to 10,683 so far.

That's almost as much as all of last year's total 11,612 cases, which was a mild year for the flu.

On Tuesday Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos stopped short of committing to extending the age of children eligible for free flu vaccinations.

"Our government is funding the flu vaccine up to the age of five years-old and that is because we were concerned the federal government hadn't taken up this as part of the national immunisation program." she said.

"We have seen very concerning numbers in terms of the flu so far this year. We have about 10,600 confirmed flu cases, that's about five times more than this time last year."

Ms Mikakos said the early start to the flu season could be attributed to people travelling to the northern hemisphere where the flu was at its peak.

"I would certainly encourage parents to get their children vaccinated as early as possible," she said.

Ms Mikakos also dismissed suggestions the state may be at risk of a vaccine shortage saying the government had made a "record number" of more than 2 million flu vaccines available.

She would not confirm if the children who have tragically died this year had existing medical conditions which made them more vulnerable, citing privacy concerns.

The horror season in 2017 saw more than 48,000 Victorians diagnosed with influenza.

Unusually, both A strains A/H1N1 and A/H3N2 are being passed around, according to the department.

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