‘Twindemic’ fears fizzle with zero flu cases recorded nationwide

Israel hasn’t won the war against COVID, but its battle plan helped score victory against the flu, which doctors feared would overwhelm the health service

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

People in Tel Aviv, some wearing protective face masks, on January 6, 2021 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
People in Tel Aviv, some wearing protective face masks, on January 6, 2021 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

As Israel battles a spiraling third coronavirus wave, it has scored a victory against another disease: influenza.

There hasn’t been a single recorded case of flu this winter, the Israel Center for Disease Control announced this week, signaling to doctors that their worst fear for this season isn’t panning out. The revelation comes as health officials in other countries, including the US, have also observed low incidence of the flu.

Some believe quarantine measures meant to keep the coronavirus in check may have helped tamp down on the flu.

There had been fears ahead of the winter of a so-called “twindemic” effect, with serious flu cases and coronavirus cases overwhelming the health service.

The concerns were accentuated by questions over whether flu vaccines would be given quickly and widely enough, and by the fact that Israel had a harsh flu season last year, which saw many hospitalizations, with reports of some patients being treated in corridors.

Illustrative photo of a patient placed in the corridor of an Israeli hospital due to overcrowding. (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

In October, Dr. Amnon Lahad, chairman of the National Council for Community Health, told The Times of Israel he was “very concerned” that Israel wouldn’t receive enough flu shots in time.

The fact that no cases have been reported does not mean that there have not been any cases, but any significant spread or serious cases would have been noticed by medical officials.

Dr. Anat Engel, director-general of Wolfson Medical Center (courtesy of Wolfson Medical Center)

“Normally we would have started to see it at the end of October, but this year, still now, we aren’t seeing the virus, which is remarkable,” Dr. Anat Engel, director-general of Wolfson Medical Center, told The Times of Israel.

The Center for Disease Control said Israelis took flu shots at almost double the normal rate this year, but the number still left four in five people unvaccinated.

According to the World Health Organization, influenza levels as of December were lower than expected for the time of year. Some experts have attributed the quashing of the flu to health guidelines and travel restrictions meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

“Things are looking good largely because of the social distancing and the masks that were introduced to fight COVID,” Engel said. “The flu spreads in a similar manner, so these measures helped.”

Tanya Cardash, medical director of the Maccabi healthcare provider in Jerusalem (courtesy of Tanya Cardash)

Tanya Cardash, medical director of the Maccabi healthcare provider in Jerusalem, told The Times of Israel that the drastic drop in international travel meant few cases, if any, even had a chance to reach Israel’s shores.

“There is far less international travel, and normally one of the main ways that flu cases come to Israel is when people travel abroad and then return here,” she said.

According to Cardash, another change has taken place, which she hopes will stick with Israelis even post-pandemic and cut flu cases in future years.

“Normally, Israelis have a spirit of working through thick and thin, and even if they feel unwell, they take an ibuprofen and off they go. This has changed,” she said.

“The pandemic has highlighted the need to be aware of our health and take steps to protect that of others around us, including the elderly,” she added.

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