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Flu cases are not down 98% globally

October 28, 2020 GMT

CLAIM: New data shows flu cases are down 98% around the globe

AP’S ASSESSMENT: Missing context. Although flu cases are down in the Southern Hemisphere, the Northern Hemisphere has yet to experience its full flu season.

THE FACTS:  Posts online are basing their information on data from countries in the Southern Hemisphere like New Zealand and Australia, which have reported low numbers of influenza cases this year. Experts say that extensive measures taken in these countries from mask wearing, lockdowns and social distancing have contributed to low flu numbers this year. 

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While some posts online did not cite evidence for the figures, others pointed to newly released data from the World Health Organization to suggest that flu cases are down by 98 percent around the world. The WHO has not said that.

In its latest influenza update based on flu cases reported from Sept. 29 to Oct. 11, WHO found that global influenza numbers are lower than expected for this time of year.

“Although the southern hemisphere seems to have been largely spared, we are still very concerned about the northern hemisphere influenza season just starting,” Dr. Margaret Harris, a WHO spokeswoman, said in an email. 

Medical professionals in the U.S. have been warning of a “twindemic,” an overlap of influenza and COVID-19, which have similar symptoms. 

“In the areas where people properly wear a proper mask, we will see very low rates of COVID-19 and influenza,” said Dr. Gregory Poland, infectious diseases expert and head of vaccine research at the Mayo Clinic. “In the areas where people are not compliant with mask wearing and distancing guidelines, we will see both diseases with COVID-19 more prominent because of its inherent greater infectiousness.”

For countries in the Southern Hemisphere like Australia and New Zealand, flu season typically lasts from April until September. Both countries reported low rates of flu this season following a strict approach to the pandemic. New Zealand has reported a total of 25 coronavirus deaths in a country with a population of about 5 million. Officials there have been applauded for their handling of the coronavirus pandemic, where the country took early action against the virus and has worked to almost eliminate community transmission of the virus. 

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“The efforts that were undertaken to reduce the spread of SARS-COV2 were also effective at reducing the flu,” said Dr. Edward Belongia, director for the Center for Clinical Epidemiology & Population Health at the Marshfield Clinic Research Institute, in Wisconsin. “They are both respiratory viruses that spread in similar ways.”

Medical experts like Belongia warn that the U.S. has not taken the steps that countries like Australia and New Zealand have taken to control the pandemic with mask wearing and lockdowns so this flu remains a large concern. 

“Certainly you should not get reassurance that what happened in the Southern Hemisphere is also going to happen in the Northern Hemisphere,” Belongia said. 

While there is no vaccine for the coronavirus yet, a vaccine exists for influenza. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone receive their flu shot by the end of October. 

“Flu could be a very real problem again this year as it was last year,” Poland said. “Don’t neglect your flu vaccine.

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This is part of The Associated Press’ ongoing effort to fact-check misinformation that is shared widely online, including work with Facebook to identify and reduce the circulation of false stories on the platform.

Here’s more information on Facebook’s fact-checking program: https://www.facebook.com/help/1952307158131536