Ana Farfan reacts to getting an influenza vaccine shot at Eastfield College in Mesquite, Texas, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020…
FILE - A women reacts to getting an influenza vaccine shot at Eastfield College in Mesquite, Texas, Jan. 23, 2020.

GENEVA - As the flu season is set to start in the northern hemisphere, the World Health Organization recommends people at highest risk be vaccinated to protect themselves and to prevent national health systems from getting overwhelmed during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The WHO is updating its guidance to help nations navigate the complex challenges posed by the simultaneous circulation of influenza and the coronavirus.

The seasonal influenza results in up to a billion cases globally each year, causing an average of 290,000 to 650,000 deaths, according to the WHO. Influenza and COVID-19 are both respiratory diseases with some similar symptoms.   

FILE - An ad offering free flu shots is seen in Brooklyn, New York, Aug. 21, 2020.

Ann Moen, chief of the WHO's Influenza Preparedness and Response program, says the vaccines, antivirals and non-pharmaceutical interventions that can protect people against influenza are not available for COVID-19.  

"So, all of the protective measures that we have been messaging about COVID and about flu in the past, such as people taking physical distancing measures, hand hygiene, covering coughs and sneezes, wearing masks when appropriate and staying home when sick, seeking care when needed, are all very important for both flu and COVID," she said.   

The WHO advises health care workers and the elderly, who are at highest risk for the flu, to be vaccinated first. Other at-risk people include pregnant women, individuals with underlying health conditions, and children. 

Moen says people who are at high risk from the flu are also at high risk from COVID-19, and the upcoming season will be especially challenging if there is co-circulation between the two illnesses. 

"It could cause confusion in health care settings or additional challenges," she said. "And so, the more flu that we can prevent with the tools and the vaccines and the antivirals that we have and the ongoing health measures, I think that we can help alleviate some of those challenges in the health system setting and we can also protect people that are at risk from flu from actually getting sick."   

Moen says health officials think the sharp drop in influenza cases in the southern hemisphere earlier this year was due to the social distancing and travel restrictions put in place since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.   

That same drop in influenza cases could be seen in parts of the northern hemisphere, where similar measures have been taken. However, Moen predicts cases of influenza are likely to rise as society opens up and COVID-19 restrictions are eased.