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The social restrictions imposed upon our lives because of coronavirus have taken a toll on our emotions, finances, and our waistlines, but there may yet be a silver-lining: a reduction in cases of other infectious diseases. From the common cold to chickenpox, there has been a substantial drop in the number of infections being reported to GPs, despite children returning to school – and that looks set to continue as winter approaches and lockdown restrictions tighten across the country.
According to the latest GP surveillance data for England there were 1.5 cases of common cold for every 100,000 people during the week ending 6 October – compared to 92.5 cases reported during the same week last year. The rate of other non-Covid respiratory illnesses was also lower, at 131 for every 100,000 people, compared to 303 last year. Influenza-like illness is also down, at 131 cases for every 100,000 people, versus 303 cases in 2019.
Although there has been in increase since the start of the school term, for all of these illnesses, infection rates remain below expected seasonal levels for this time of year, the report by the Royal College of General Practitioners’ research and surveillance centre said. Equivalent data was not immediately accessible for Wales and Scotland.
GP consultations for other infectious diseases like strep throat, tonsillitis and impetigo, as well as infectious intestinal diseases like norovirus are also well below the five-year average – and have been since late March – the report suggests.
“During the spring and summer we saw quite a sharp fall in infectious diseases, which isn’t unexpected with lockdown and people not mixing so much,” said Prof Azeem Majeed, professor of primary care and public health at Imperial College London and a practising GP. “Some things were quite dramatic, so chickenpox and viral gastroenteritis fell to very low levels, compared to the average. Whether that will stay the same during the autumn and winter depends on how much people mix, but if we have measures like social distancing, increased hygiene, people working from home more than they would normally, we will probably see lower rates than in previous years.”
The data is derived from patient reports of illness at up to 500 GP practices across England. Although it’s possible that people are less inclined to contact their doctor about relatively mild illnesses than usual, given the current climate, Majeed believes there’s more to it than that: “Some of the effect I think is real because, although the mild cases may not present, the more serious cases would, and we’ve seen a reduction there as well.”
The benefits of increased hygiene as a result of Covid-19 could stretch even further ahead. Most schools are insisting on regular hand washing, and are encouraging children to rub soap into their hands for 20 seconds or more, before rinsing it off. “I think it’s quite possible that if these measures are maintained longer term, we will see a lasting impact on the rates of any illness that spreads from child to child,” said Majeed. “It just depends on how long that behaviour change is maintained for.”
Although the UK’s flu season is only just beginning , data from the southern hemisphere indicates that countries there experienced far fewer influenza cases than normal. Influenza data reported to the World Health Organization’s FluNet platform, which helps track the movement of viruses globally, found that just 0.06% of samples taken from individuals in Chile, South Africa and Australia tested positive for influenza viruses between April and July, compared to 13.7% of samples during the same period last year.
And although the southern hemisphere’s flu season coincided with strict lockdowns in many countries, a similar trend was seen in countries like Taiwan, which relied on contact tracing and isolation of infected individuals, plus social distancing measures to contain the spread of Covid-19.
“Our influenza and enterovirus [which causes runny nose, fever, cough and sneezing] were gone this year, and common cold illness visits were down to the lowest level,” said Prof Wen-Liang Yu, associate professor of medicine at Chi Mei medical centre in Tainan, Taiwan. “We did the same as you in the UK, except we kept going to work in the office and studying in schools under infection control policies such as social distancing, masking, and hand washing. We believe those measures would also help the UK to go safely through this winter.”
Source: The Guardian
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