Enlarge /. A masked pedestrian crosses an empty street at a busy intersection in the Central Business District on February 3, 2020 in Beijing, China.
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Reports of influenza and a host of other infectious diseases have dropped as the COVID-19 pandemic has driven people into the block.
In many places, social distancing measures to curb the spread of the new corona virus can simultaneously stifle the spread of other infectious diseases. But elsewhere, the pandemic can simply mask the spread of disease, as people may avoid having to deal with more routine infections, while the pandemic-laden health systems may have difficulty performing routine, monitoring, testing, and reporting.
Some of the resulting declines are dramatic. Countries in the southern hemisphere have reported much less influenza than usual. Australia, for example, started 2020 with a relatively high level of flu and reported around 7,000 laboratory-confirmed cases in January and February. However, the outbreak crashed in March with reports of only 229 cases in April, compared to nearly 19,000 in April 2019, the New Scientist found.
In Argentina, the flu cases confirmed in January between January and July were 64 percent below the average of the past five years, according to the Wall Street Journal. In New Zealand, which has been extraordinarily successful in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, health officials reported that only 0.7 percent of the population had flu-like symptoms in the first week of July, while the usual rates were between 3 and 4 percent. In contrast, in Brazil, which struggled to keep the pandemic under control, flu cases fell by about 40 percent from normal.
In a recent report, the World Health Organization found that flu activity was "lower than expected" but that the data should be "interpreted with caution" because the lower values could be due to fewer illnesses and fewer reports of illness.
However, influenza is not the only disease that is declining. A Reuters report found that measles and mumps cases in China decreased 70 percent and 90 percent, respectively, while the country was closed. Similarly, countries in the southern hemisphere have seen declines in other viral diseases such as the respiratory syncytial virus and pneumococcal disease.
It is still unclear whether these global trends are good for the U.S., which is still facing a high COVID-19 spread at the beginning of the fall flu season. The burden of disease can depend on whether Americans across the country adhere to social distance, hygiene, and mask use.
In an interview earlier this month, CDC director Robert Redfield was pessimistic. "I'm worried," he said. "I think fall and winter 2020 and 2021 are likely to be one of the most difficult times we have seen in American public health."