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Will social distancing trigger a future surge in flu?

As a result of social distancing measures put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, some experts believe there may be a subsequent spike in flu next winter, as fewer people will have been exposed to the seasonal virus. 

Will social distancing trigger a future surge in flu?
Zara Tunnicliffe
· 3 min read

As a result of social distancing measures put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, some experts believe there may be a subsequent spike in flu next winter, as fewer people will have been exposed to the seasonal virus. 

While social distancing has proven effective at slowing the spread of COVID-19, it also means other contagious diseases aren’t spreading as much.

While this may seem like a positive thing, scientists have warned there will be further effects in the longer term, as a larger group of people will become vulnerable to these other viruses and illnesses, as they have not been able to build up immunity. The number of susceptible people, experts say, will increase as social distancing measures and the rules around mandatory face masks continue to be in place over the coming months.  

Dr Foxman, author of the Yale Viral Interference Study, warned, “Common colds probably shore up our defences against other viruses. If we completely shut down transmission of these with lockdown measures, and then open things up again, will we see bigger peaks of coronavirus and other viruses?

“I'm strongly in favour of mitigation measures, but it's a big experiment. I'll be watching closely.”

While nothing is set in stone, social distancing could potentially begin to be relaxed in spring 2021 should the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines prove successful.

Respiratory illnesses usually spike in numbers during the winter months anyway. However, under abnormal conditions, scientists at Princeton University have concerns that future outbreaks of these known illnesses will “increase the burden” on current healthcare systems and organisations. 

Previously, there were concerns here in the UK that healthcare facilities would be overrun with the double whammy of the seasonal flu, responsible for around 10,000 deaths per year, and COVID-19. This caused great worry and led to the Government deploying the most extensive flu vaccination programme ever. 

UK flu cases are currently down significantly. Since March, when COVID-19 began to spread through the country, only 767 cases of flu have been recorded. Last year, from March to October, nearly 7,000 cases were recorded. These figures suggest that the flu has almost disappeared! 

Dr David Strain, senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter Medical School, told the Daily Mail, "This is real. 'There's no doubt that we're seeing far fewer incidences of flu.”

Those sceptical of the COVID-19 pandemic have suggested that the flu has not “vanished” at all. Instead, they are saying flu cases are being recorded as COVID-19. They argue that tests are not able to tell the difference between flu and COVID-19. 

However, virologist and lecturer in global health at St George's, University of London, Dr Elisabetta Groppelli, explained to the Daily Mail, “Flu and Covid-19 are caused by very distinct viruses, and this is clear to see under a microscope. 

“There's no chance of mistaking one for the other – the fragment of viral genetic material from the coronavirus looks like a bit of spaghetti, while the flu genetic material we test for looks like eight pieces of penne pasta.”

Zara Tunnicliffe
Zara Tunnicliffe
Writing has allowed Zara to learn about topics and explore further those that interest her. Zara creates a range promotional copy for events as well as content for a variety of websites and social media platforms. Zara always look forward to researching interesting topics and sharing them with others through her writing.