PETALING JAYA: Although there is a sharp drop in reported influenza cases this year, the highly contagious respiratory illness occurs all year round, says the Health Ministry, while reminding the public to take safety measures against it.
From January to July this year, the ministry logged 158 influenza clusters – compared with 255 clusters during the same period last year.
Of the 158 clusters reported this year, 54% were in schools, followed by kindergartens at 20%.
Health Minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa said the total number of cases reported from the 158 clusters was 4,606, whereas in 2022 the cases were three times higher or 12,876 cases from 255 clusters.
“The ministry still monitors influenza outbreaks and clusters that occur, although individual cases are not required to be notified by clinics and hospitals,” she said in an interview.
This is because influenza, or the flu, is not subject to mandatory notifications under the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 (Act 342).
Dr Zaliha said influenza tends to occur all year round and has the potential to attack all ages.
While most people recover within a week without requiring medical attention, some may require admission for close monitoring, she said.
Influenza and the common cold are both contagious respiratory illnesses but caused by different viruses, she added.
“The flu is caused by influenza viruses only whereas the common cold can be caused by a number of different viruses, including rhinoviruses and (human) parainfluenza (viruses),” she said.
Dr Zaliha said the best way to avoid infection is to get the influenza vaccine every year.
She also advised those with symptoms to avoid close contact with others and keep a distance to protect other people from getting sick too.
“Stay home when you are sick. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It may prevent those around you from getting sick,” she said.
Flu viruses, she noted, spread mainly by droplets made when people cough, sneeze or talk.
Dr Zaliha said practising good hand hygiene is also important to curb the spread of the flu.
Germs can also be spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches their eyes, nose or mouth, she said.
Other good health habits – such as cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces at home, work or school, especially when someone is ill – should also be practised, she added.
“Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids and eat nutritious food. Also seek immediate treatment if symptoms worsen,” she said.
Federation of Private Medical Practitioners’ Associations Malaysia president Dr Shanmuganathan TV Ganeson said the flu season peaks in May to July and November to January.“For the first 24 weeks of 2023 in Malaysia, there was 18.45% positivity for influenza of the specimens sent. The figures for Singapore were quite similar at 20%,” he said.
Dr Shanmuganathan said that as there are pockets of spread, the prevalence would vary from area to area and from time to time.
For example, he said that in May, Klang doctors commented on increased influenza A and B cases, but doctors in Kuala Lumpur did not seem to corroborate that increase.
Symptoms of influenza are fever, flu, cough and chest discomfort, sore throat, lethargy, headache and body aches, respiratory distress, and even vomiting and diarrhoea.
Meanwhile, the symptoms of the common cold are sneezing, stuffy nose, runny nose, sore throat, coughing, mucus dripping down your throat (post-nasal drip), watery eyes and fever.
“However, most people with colds do not have fever,” said Dr Shanmuganathan.
The at-risk groups include children below five years old, the elderly above 65 years old, those with chronic conditions like asthma, diabetes, heart disease or chronic bronchitis, persons with poor immunity like HIV, cancer and chemotherapy patients, healthcare workers and caregivers, he added.
Association of Private Hospitals Malaysia president Datuk Dr Kuljit Singh said Covid-19 has taught the world how to curb the spread of upper respiratory infections, and that the same principles could be applied to flu infections.
“The precautions are pretty similar to Covid-19, such as masking up, social distancing and hand washing – as well as isolation for those infected to control the spread,” he said.
Dr Kuljit also said that in July, private hospitals saw a rise in bed occupancy due to many factors, most notably influenza.