What’s the future of the flu?

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FILE – This Jan. 23, 2020 file photo shows a patient receiving a flu vaccination in Mesquite, Texas. On Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the vaccine has been more than 50% effective in preventing flu illness severe enough to send a child to the doctor’s office. Health experts consider that pretty good. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — The influenza virus has been virtually nonexistent this season.

“I think what’s really unusual is that there was basically no flu season last year,” said Chris Brooke, an assistant professor of microbiology at the University of Illinois.

So what does it mean going forward?

Take a look at the map below:

It’s data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has been tracking the flu season across the U.S.

You can see minimal flu-like illness across the country.

“We thought, from the mitigation efforts we do for COVID-19, that might decrease the rate of infection from influenza,” explained Dr Robert Healy, Carle Foundation Hospital’s Chief Quality Officer.

But what happens next?

“In talking to some of my colleagues who are virologists, they’re also concerned that what this may lead to is some wild strain of influenza because it’s always fighting for survival,” said Awais Vaid, the deputy administrator for the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District.

However, that theory doesn’t resonate with Brooke.

“To be honest, no one knows the answer,” he said. “You’ve never seen anything like this. I think the idea that you would evolve a new variant that’s more dangerous, that’s not especially a concern. The influenza virus is always evolving.”

But Vaid argues when regular strains of the flu are suppressed, there could be other strains coming.

“That is something that people who study influenza viruses are keeping a very close eye on,” Vaid said.

Healy says the theory isn’t something he’s aware of.

“If someone’s exposed to influenza, they build up an immunity to it,” he said. “If we have a year and we’re not building up an immunity to it, what could that mean? But I don’t see that as creating a new variant.”

Disagreement aside, there is something all three agree on: wearing a mask has a big impact on transmission.

“When it is flu season, people might consider wearing a mask in crowded spaces, or maintaining a little more distance or avoid really crowded indoor spaces,” Brooke said.

He says that will save more than lives.

“The economic costs associated with the flu are tens of billions of dollars every year in the U.S., he explained. “We showed it can be mitigated.”

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