Flu Deaths: 'Unprecedented' Start To Season With 10 Dead

Ten people have died from flu in South Australia this year, as health authorities warn of an unprecedented start to the season across the country.

SA Health has so far been notified of ten deaths from the influenza virus, including a "healthy" 15-year-old girl and nine others aged between 16 and 92.

The department was notified of four deaths this week.

"This is a real message to the community to please go out and get protected with a flu shot," SA Health Chief Medical Officer Paddy Phillips told reporters on Tuesday. 

"It is almost certainly the tip of the iceberg."

There have been about 39,000 laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza across the country in 2019 -- around three times the usual number recorded at this time of year.

Phillips said 10,636 cases have been recorded in SA, which is eight times the amount recorded this time last year.

"So far this year, we have seen unprecedented numbers of influenza cases," he said. "It's absolutely the worst start that I'm aware of ... that applies across the nation."

READ MORE: Millions Of Aussies Eligible For Free Flu Shot This Winter 

Senior Medical Virologist Professor William Rawlinson on Tuesday said a similar number of cases -- about 10 000 -- have been recorded in NSW which is about three to four times the amount of previous years.

"The main viruses we are seeing are predominantly influenza A and most of the strains are split between sub-type H3n2 and H1M1, which we saw during the 2009 pandemic," he said.

Rawlinson said the number of cases nationwide could end up being the highest since the 2017 influenza season -- the worst since the 2009 swine flu pandemic -- when a quarter of a million laboratory-confirmed cases were recorded.

He warned laboratory numbers do not reflect the full extent of the flu, as most people do not get tested.

Immunisation Coalition chairman Professor Robert Booy said there has been a sustained and rising autumn and winter "serge" this year that is continuing to increase.

"The best explanation is that 2018 was so quiet that we have reduced community immunity, so there are more people who are vulnerable to catching infection and therefore transmitting infection," he said.

He predicted about two million people will get the flu this year, in line with a busy influenza year.

"It's likely this will be the highest number since 2017 although I'd be very concerned that it may be higher because we haven't seen so much in 2018," he said.

Image: The public is being urged to protect themselves from the flu. PHOTO: PA

Researchers are expecting there to be about 4000 deaths from complications due to flu, based on modelling showing the average number of deaths on average each season.

Health authorities across states are urging people to get vaccinated to protect themselves, particularly at-risk groups including those with impaired immunity, chronic medical conditions, indigenous Australians, young children and the elderly.

Phillips said recent vaccine shortages in South Australia last month were due to "unprecedented demand".

"We normally start distributing around the beginning of April and that's what we have done this year. There were some limitations on the amount given to providers to ensure all immunisation providers have some access to the vaccine in its early stages of supply," he said.

"At the moment, there is no restriction on supply so the community should feel reassured  that should they wish to attend their GP or pharmacy, they can get access to the vaccine."

SA Health has so far distributed 355,000 doses of the vaccine to immunisation providers across the state.

Rawlinson said that number extends to six million nationwide.

Featured image: AAP