Fever, coughing, muscle pain and fatigue. Before the coronavirus emerged as a public threat, these were the symptoms of seasonal influenza to the untrained eye. The two infections were confused in the early days of the pandemic, but nowadays people are more convinced they have COVID-19 if they exhibit these symptoms. They are right, in a way, at least in Turkey, as flu cases have almost vanished into thin air since 2020. Did the seasonal infection really go away? The answer is a firm "no" from experts, who say that as the autumn sets in the flu may return more forcefully.
Professor Alper Şener, a member of the Health Ministry’s Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board, says they expected a rise in flu cases this year. “This is not something that suddenly appears and then disappears forever. Flu has not been circulating in the past year, but it will return,” he warned.
Strict individual measures, which became a public health policy, helped curb flu cases or at least decrease the more severe bouts of infection. In a country where protective masks against COVID-19 have been mandatory and people have avoided social contact, both on their own and with social distancing restrictions, the number of flu cases hit rock bottom. But as coronavirus cases climb, they may rise again, due to similar instigators of the pandemic surge. While the rise in COVID-19 cases is blamed on the new, stronger delta and delta plus variants, people ignoring calls for vaccination and ditching masks and social distancing, a flu influx could be triggered by closer interaction between people not wearing masks properly.
Şener also warns about a common misconception among the public. “You are not vaccinated against flu when you have your coronavirus vaccine. They are different vaccines. Even if you are inoculated against coronavirus, you have to have your flu shot separately,” he told Anadolu Agency (AA) on Sunday.
Though younger people usually overcome the flu with mild symptoms, it can sometimes have deadly consequences, especially for people aged 65 and above and those with chronic illnesses. Şener called on those people to get their flu shots before the start of winter. “It is essential to curb pneumonia rates with people infected with flu. Others may need flu vaccines to trigger the antibody responses of their bodies again, against flu,” he said.
Flu is a rapidly spreading disease, and like the coronavirus, is transmitted via infectious droplets that are dispersed into the air up to 1 meter (3.3 feet) from coughs or sneezes. The best way to prevent the flu, science and data show, is by getting vaccinated.
Turkey already maintains a good pace in its vaccination program against coronavirus and currently ranks seventh in the world, according to Health Minister Fahrettin Koca. So far, it has administered more than 107.7 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines and some 43.4 million people now have their two doses of vaccine.
The country administers China’s CoronaVac and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines to anyone eligible for vaccination aged 15 and above. In the meantime, it is working on the development of its own vaccine, Turkovac.
Professor Murat Akova, an infectious diseases expert and former coordinator for trials of the vaccine, says Turkovac would be as good as CoronaVac once the work is complete. Developers expect it to be available in October, after receiving emergency use approval from the Health Ministry.
Akova told Demirören News Agency (DHA) on Sunday that Turkovac was an inactive jab like CoronaVac. “They produce fewer antibodies compared to Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at first, but they are able to produce more prevalent antibodies spreading across the body. I predict Turkovac would be as efficient as CoronaVac,” he said.
Turkovac is currently in Phase 3 trials with more than 1,000 volunteers, and no side effects have been reported so far. Akova says any efficiency above the current levels of CoronaVac would grant Turkovac approval.
Though vaccines are widely available in the country, people hesitating to receive them jeopardizes the fight against the pandemic. Some are willing to risk their lives instead of getting their shots, like expectant mothers. Experts, however, warn that the latest variants of the disease are more severe for pregnant women. Fearing that the vaccines would harm their pregnancy and newborn children, more expectant mothers shun vaccination but they often end up in intensive care. Experts look to assure them that COVID-19 vaccines are not harmful at all during most stages of pregnancy.
Professor Inanç Mendilcioğlu, a maternal health expert at Akdeniz University, says new variants of coronavirus lead to more severe cases for pregnant women. He also warns that pregnant women should avoid additional weight gain during pregnancy as it aggravates the risk of more severe coronavirus cases once infected. Mendilcioğlu told AA that they were seeing more expectant mothers infected with delta and delta plus variants and that fatalities were also rising. He points out that pregnancy also complicates the treatment of coronavirus patients who cannot be administered regular drugs used in treatment as is the case with other patients.