THERE have been almost five times more cases of flu in the Hunter New England region than the same time last year, and hospital emergency departments are bearing the brunt.
There have been 1204 confirmed cases of influenza in Hunter New England so far this year, up from 258 at the same time in 2018, and 370 in 2017.
"For the total of 2018 we had 1800 cases of flu, so it's like we have had two thirds of what we had in 2018 just in the first six months of this year," Hunter New England Health public health physician, Dr Craig Dalton, said.
"But then in 2017, we had 12,000 cases all up."
Dr Dalton said the higher numbers could be partly due to increased testing.
"But essentially we have had a January-to-April peak in flu, which has been quite unusual," he said. "Since 2011 we have seen these little peaks come up, but this is the biggest summer-autumn peak we have had.
"We suspect it is feeding in from the northern hemisphere, where there is more active flu. But there is lots of speculation about causes - whether increased air conditioning causes little micro winters that are conducive to the spread of flu - but we don't really know."
In NSW, there have been 49 confirmed deaths related to influenza, and 16 per cent of presentations to Hunter hospitals from June 3 to 9 had been related to respiratory illnesses, fevers and infections.
Dr Claire Morbey, an endocrinologist at Hunter Diabetes Centre, said respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) was another common illness found at this time of year that could be fatal for the very young, old and vulnerable. Her clinical trials team is looking for people over the age of 65 - who haven't had the flu vaccine this year - to participate in an "investigational" vaccine study for RSV.
"RSV is a virus that tends to come around every winter, just like the flu does, and in most people it would probably just knock them around for a few days," she said. "But older people can get quite unwell with it, just like the flu, and if small babies get it, it can put them into hospital with croup and bronchiolitis. It is the biggest killer of babies under the age of one."
Dr Morbey said RSV was often "indistinguishable" from influenza. Until now, there had not been a vaccine.
"The vaccine has been tested and we know it works, but we need to test the formulation of different preparations - taken together with the flu vaccine - to see which gives the best immune response."
To find out more about the trial, call (02) 49632323.
Dr Vicky Sheppeard, NSW Health Director of Communicable Diseases, said while the flu vaccine was still the best protection, simple hand hygiene was also important.
"Basic hygiene can help prevent flu and other infections spreading in the community, so it's really important to cover your coughs and sneezes, and wash your hands regularly," she said.
"If you are unwell with the flu, stay at home and minimise contact with other people if possible, especially those who are particularly vulnerable, such as young children and the elderly. Avoid visiting aged care facilities and child care centres until you have recovered.
"It's also not too late to vaccinate and we're encouraging everyone, particularly pregnant women and parents of young children, to arrange flu shots for themselves and their children as soon as possible."