Flu, flu, go away: Is coronavirus pushing the flu out of Israel?

As Israel enters its second COVID winter, flu morbidity remains low.

A woman blowing her nose into a tissue, possibly after or sneeze or while sick (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
A woman blowing her nose into a tissue, possibly after or sneeze or while sick
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)

As winter approaches, flu morbidity in Israel remains low for this time of the year and more similar to the level that in pre-pandemic years was observed between influenza seasons, Health Ministry data on flu-related hospitalizations and visits to community clinics have been showing.

“We have forgotten about it, but just before the COVID outbreak, at the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020, we had a terrible flu season,” said Dr. Alon Hershko, chairman of the department of medicine C at Hadassah-University Medical Center in Jerusalem.

“Last year, however, we did not have any flu cases for an entire winter, which is unprecedented,” he said. “Now the flu is coming back, but so far there have been very few cases. In our hospital, I don’t think we have seen any.”

The physician said that there is not a conclusive reason to explain the phenomenon.

“It is reasonable to think that wearing masks plays a role, even though people are still getting infected with the coronavirus while they wear a mask,” he noted. “It could also be related to a deeper explanation, such as an interaction between viruses where the presence of the coronavirus somehow prevents infections from other viruses. We do not know.”

 CHILDREN WEAR face masks upon returning to school for the first time since the heartbreak of COVID-19, in May of last year. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) CHILDREN WEAR face masks upon returning to school for the first time since the heartbreak of COVID-19, in May of last year. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

According to Hershko, for this reason, it is way too early to predict what the rest of the winter will look like.

Hershko highly recommended that everyone get a vaccine against influenza.

Health Ministry data show that, as of the beginning of December, only 15% of the Israeli population – or 1.4 million people – had gotten inoculated, compared to 21% in 2020. Among individuals over 65, the rate stood at 55%, compared to 64% over the previous years, while coverage among young children was 8%, down from 18%.

“The influenza vaccine does not prevent infection, but it’s very effective against serious symptoms and complications,” Hershko said. “In this sense it is similar to the inoculation against COVID: inoculated people can still get it but are protected from hospitalization and death.”

The doctor noted that the risk of developing a severe disease is what distinguishes influenza from other respiratory viruses that can cause common colds.

“The flu virus is one of the most aggressive ones,” he said. “It can cause complications such as heart inflammation and failure, pneumonia and inflammation of the brain tissues. However, for those who are vaccinated the symptoms are very mild.”

A low level of influenza activity has been observed in the rest of the world.

However, as the winter progresses, things might still change, Hershko stressed.

“We do not know what is going to happen; therefore, we must be prepared for the worst and get vaccinated,” he concluded.