It was one of the worst weeks of Professor David Pilcher’s working life.
Late in September last year, intensive care units around the country were flooded by a horrifying number of people experiencing severe complications from the flu.
Some patients suffered multiple organ failure.
At The Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, where Professor Pilcher works, they almost ran out of dialysis machines for patients with septic shock.
“Probably most common thing that you’d hear [from relatives] is that I never thought they could get that sick with flu,” Professor Pilcher said.
“In our intensive care unit, there were 30 ventilated patients, 17 patients that needed dialysis and eight patients on artificial hearts, which is a huge amount of really sick people."
At the time, Professor Pilcher suspected that he and his colleagues were dealing with an unusual increase in sick patients that had gone on to develop sepsis or pneumonia after catching the flu.
Research published in The New England Journal of Medicine on Thursday, co-authored by Professor Pilcher, revealed that last year’s flu season was the deadliest experienced by Australian and New Zealand hospitals in at least a quarter of century.
Official flu records only date back 25 years and do not take into account the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 which killed up to 50 million people worldwide.
The number of people in intensive care during July, August and September last year with pneumonia or sepsis was the highest since official flu records began in 1993.
These influenza complications claimed the lives of an estimated 800 people across the two countries. That’s even more than during the 2009 swine flu pandemic, when 536 people died.
While the average age of the people who died was 70, the 2017 season was marked by a number of particularly tragic cases of young people dying, including eight-year-old Rosie Anderson from Melbourne and three-year-old Vanika Idnani from Sydney.
Professor Pilcher said Victoria, NSW, South Australia and Tasmania were hit hardest.
In August last year, public affairs professional Ali Melville said she was shocked to find herself in hospital with the flu, at 20 weeks pregnant.
The mother-of-two had received a flu vaccination, but it didn’t cover the strain that she and another 55 per cent of Australia’s flu victims caught, Influenza A (H3N2).
Ms Melville said that she woke up one morning feeling a bit off colour. By the evening she was freezing cold, had low blood pressure and her heart was beating fast. Her GP sent her off to the emergency ward of The Alfred Hospital, which was heaving with flu cases.
She spent almost two days in the emergency ward before being discharged.
“Finally I was allowed to go home and I was just in bed and could hardly move for a week, which is really hard with a toddler,” she said.
The 2017 flu season put enormous strain on Australia’s public hospitals, some cancelling elective surgeries.
Professor Pilcher said the next step of the research was to examine if the horror influenza outbreak led to a higher death rate in intensive care units overall, as staff were forced to cope with the rush of very sick patients.< Go Back