There is another pandemic term to be aware of, but don’t worry “flurona” is not another variant.
As 2021 came to an end, doctors at Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva, Israel, confirmed an individual had contracted both the flu and COVID-19 at the same time. On Dec. 23, 2021, a 29-year-old pregnant woman tested positive for COVID-19. Six days later she also tested positive for influenza type A, a strain of the flu. She was hospitalized and released after recovering. There have been more cases of the virus combo confirmed in other countries.
While medical experts say that co-infections are rare, they are worried about how cases of the virus combo will affect the already burdened health-care system.
Here is what we know about “flurona” so far.
What is it?
“Flurona” refers to when someone is infected with both the flu and COVID-19 at the same time.
The term originated from the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians. In Dec. 2020, the Association published an article on the vaccination rate for flu shots and used “flurona” to describe “the potential for parallel outbreaks of influenza and COVID, and the resulting burden on the health system,” said Yitzah Cohen, from the Corona Israel Information Headquarters (which belongs to Israel Ministry of Health), in an email to Reuters.
The confirmed case in Israel at the end of 2021 was not the first. In a study published in June 2020, doctors from Medilife Health Group in Istanbul, Turkey, reported six cases of co-infection in patients between March 10 to May 10. Similarly, a study by doctors from Hospital Clínic Barcelona in Spain found four cases of “flurona” in May 2020. Both studies determined that more research is needed to better understand the co-infection and to determine the best possible treatment, especially for the elderly and those who are immunocompromised.
Why are we hearing about this now?
Medical experts are worried about cases of “flurona” now because of the highly contagious omicron variant and the loosening of pandemic restrictions. During the 2020-2021 flu season, there were only 69 confirmed cases of the flu in Canada, according to FluWatch. In comparison, while influenza activity remains low, between Dec. 12, 2021, and Jan. 1, 2022, there were a total of 158 detected cases.
“Many regions are seeing higher flu activity and at the same time seeing high COVID activity, this leads to more co-infections with both pathogens,” said Dominik Mertz, an infectious disease specialist, and professor at McMaster University.
While restrictions like social distancing, masking, and handwashing are successful at curbing the spread of COVID-19 they have also helped in limiting the transmission of the flu. As these restrictions are lifted, cases of the flu have risen as well.
“People working in the health-care system have always warned about the risk of having flu and COVID circulate at the same time,” said Mertz.
It is less a worry about people getting sick from co-infections because they are rare, he said, and more a worry that the already-stretched health-care system will have more patients to care for while they are already dealing with COVID.
Who is getting it?
So far, “flurona” is documented to have affected individuals in many countries including the United States, Israel, Turkey, Spain, Iran, Brazil, the Philippines, and Hungary. In an email, the Public Health Agency of Canada said it currently does not have any data on cases of influenza and COVID-19 co-infection in the country.
Those who are most at risk of co-infection are those who are exposed to respiratory viruses regularly, said Mertz. Historically, these viruses are very active in daycare and school settings.
High-risk patients, including the elderly and immunocompromised, should be the most careful, he said. As they are at high risk for COVID-19 and the flu, they would be for co-infection as well.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of the flu and COVID-19 are very similar, said Mertz. If you have both, you may not be able to tell which virus is causing which symptoms.
According to Public Health, the most sudden symptoms of the flu are fever, cough, and muscle aches and pains. Other symptoms include headache, chills, fatigue, loss of appetite, sore throat, and runny nose. COVID symptoms are most commonly cough, difficulty breathing, fever, chills, fatigue, muscle aches, and headaches.
“I think the only exception is those who have a loss of taste and smell,” said Mertz. “That’s very, very likely COVID-19.”
It is hard to tell if someone with a co-infection will have more severe symptoms, he said. There is currently not enough information on the virus combo to support a clear answer.
How do you treat it?
The flu and COVID have different treatments, but if you contract both you will probably have to treat both at the same time, said Mertz. Certain prescription drugs are used to treat each virus, which Mertz said high-risk patients would most likely qualify for.
Should you be worried?
The Public Health Agency of Canada said contracting “flurona” is rare.
“The flu is still at a very, very, very low activity at this point of time,” said Mertz. “Usually, we see a peak in January to February and currently we hardly see any flu.”
If you are at risk of exposure, Mertz said to take precautions, as you would during any flu season or through the pandemic.
“Beyond that, I would say there’s no need to be any more worried.”
What can you do to avoid flurona?
The best way to avoid getting the flu or COVID-19 is to follow public health guidelines, said Mertz. Both viruses are spread in similar ways – coughing, sneezing and talking.
Public Health says to prevent COVID-19, you should stay home when you are sick, improve ventilation, wear a mask, practice social distancing, wash your hands and disinfect surfaces. Preventive measures for the flu are similar, they include, washing your hands, avoiding touching your nose and mouth, coughing into the bend of your arm, disinfecting surfaces, and staying home if you are sick.
“The bottom line is simply get vaccinated against both,” said Mertz. “We have a flu vaccine and a COVID-19 vaccine that will protect you from both.”
National Post, with additional reporting from Reuters