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By Cornelia Le Roux

Digital Deputy News Editor

Virus alert: Covid-19 still doing the rounds, peak in RSV infections and flu facts

With winter approaching, here's what to know about this season's flu, respiratory infections and the lingering presence of Covid-19.

The latest update from the National Department of Health will make anyone think twice about heading to Tiffindell for a lekka jol in the snow. Apparently the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is already at peak circulation in South Africa, flu cases are starting to surge, there’s a resurgence of swine flu and Covid-19 continues to circulate.

“The National Institute for Communicable Diseases has a surveillance system which monitors the circulation of respiratory viruses throughout the country and has notified the department that it is currently the peak season of RSV which can be confused by some people with Covid-19 or SARS-CoV-2 due to common symptoms,” revealed the department’s spokesperson, Foster Mohale.

Dr Jonathan Redelinghuys of Medicare24 recently told The Citizen that the resurgence of swine flu, alongside a strong showing of seasonal flu, presents a significant health risk and the potential for a severe flu season.

Latest strain of Covid-19: ‘No reason for concern’

In September last year, the World Health Organization [WHO] announced that the latest Covid-19 variant which has been detected, is known as JN.1.

In January, the JN.1 variant was also confirmed in samples from South Africa.

Dr Sibongile Walaza from the NCID told Daily Maverick that Covid-19 is still circulating in South Africa, adding that new variants are expected to continue to emerge. 

flu covid-19 health virus winter department
JN.1 is the latest Covid-19 strain which has emerged. Photo: iStock

“With currently available data, albeit limited, there is no reason for concern. The WHO has assessed the overall risk as low as the limited evidence on JN.1 does not suggest additional public health risks relative to the other currently circulating Omicron descendent lineages,” Walaza continued. 

“Individuals at risk of severe disease [older people, immune compromised] are recommended to receive vaccine and booster doses as per guidelines.”

The latest report from South African teams tracking SARS-CoV-2 viruses published on 5 January states that 11 samples of the JN.1 variant were found in the Western Cape and one in Gauteng.

Fake news about new variant circulating

Mohale said that the department has noted with concern that fake news about a Covid-19 Omicron XBB variant has resurfaced on social media.

In the post, people are advised to wear face masks because of this alleged deadly and not-easy-to-detect variant.

“This is a misleading message which first resurfaced during the peak of the pandemic without a traceable source,” the spokesperson warned.

“We urge members of the public to be vigilant and ignore this malicious social media content whose intent is to cause unnecessary panic and confusion, especially as the country is entering influenza season.”

ALSO READ: Covid lowered life expectancy by 1.6 years worldwide: study

There’s flu and then there is RSV

Respiratory syncytial virus or RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and lower respiratory tract illness (LRTI) among young children. However, it may also contribute to respiratory disease in older people. 

According to the Health Department, it is highly contagious and infection with RSV does not result in permanent or long-term immunity and re-infections can occur.

The majority of infants with RSV-associated bronchiolitis do not require hospitalisation, but certain children are at risk of severe disease or require supplemental oxygen.

Infants under six months may develop severe disease like hypoxia, severe respiratory distress (tachypnoea, nasal flaring or lower chest retractions), inability to feed or apnoea requiring hospitalisation.

Flu season approaching

The flu season is expected to start in the next few weeks and the department is advising those at high risk of contracting the virus to get the flu vaccine to prevent severe health complications. 

Groups at high risk include people who are over 65 years old, those with underlying illnesses such as heart and lung disease, people living with HIV and tuberculosis, as well as pregnant people. 

Annual vaccine is the ‘only sure way’ to avoid flu
Stay ahead of the curve and get your flu vaccine. Photo: iStock

The flu vaccine is available in public clinics free of charge on a first-come, first-serve basis to people falling into the high-risk category, while private pharmacies also sell the vaccine. 

The flu virus spreads mainly from one person to another by respiratory droplets and co-infections with other respiratory viruses can occur. 

Some common symptoms of RSV and flu include – but are not limited – to a runny nose, loss of appetite, coughing, sneezing, fever, and wheezing.

People infected with the flu are usually contagious for three to eight days. Preventative measures such as wearing masks and social distancing are recommended especially for those who are ill. 

Debunking myth that influenza vaccine can give you flu

False: According to the NICD, the vaccine does not contain a live virus so you cannot “catch” flu from the vaccine.

At the time when influenza vaccine is recommended (just before the flu season), there are many other types of respiratory viruses around that can cause similar signs and symptoms to flu.

There is a high chance of being infected with one of these viruses and people often – incorrectly – attribute the illness to a flu shot they’ve just had.

The vaccine also takes two weeks to work so you could catch flu during this period, especially if you receive the influenza vaccine after the flu season has started.

It is also important to note that the flu vaccine needs to be repeated every year as flu viruses change slightly each year.