Photo/Illutration A child receives a flu shot at a clinic. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Although a winter outbreak of influenza has not materialized, experts caution that one could still occur--with huge ramifications for health care workers bracing for sixth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Health ministry officials, citing reports from 5,000 or so medical institutions across Japan that regularly provide updates on the spread of influenza, reported only 10 cases of flu during a week through Oct. 17.

The count at this time last year was 17, compared with 4,447 two years ago.

Tadashi Ishida, chair of the influenza committee at the Japanese Association for Infectious Diseases, suggested that the low incidence of flu was due to diligence on the part of the public by washing their hands often and wearing face masks as precautions against the novel coronavirus.

He did not rule out the possibility that a major flu outbreak had not occurred because the COVID-19 crisis has dominated since early last year, constraining other types of viruses, including influenza.

Australia’s Department of Health said the spread of flu Down Under was at a historic low.

But small outbreaks have been reported in Bangladesh, India and China.

“The flu virus could make it to our country if restrictions on international travel are eased to allow for large numbers of people to travel between Japan and elsewhere,” Ishida said.

Health authorities in Britain are predicting as much as a 50-percentg rise in influenza cases this winter compared with a normal year and urging people to get vaccinated.

Japan's health ministry said supplies of flu vaccines are more or less on the same level as a normal year but down about 20 percent compared with the last season.

Officials said vaccine shipments had stalled this year compared with 2020 and anticipated that only 65 percent of expected supplies will have been rolled out by the end of this month. Last year, about 90 percent of supplies were distributed by the end of October.

Ministry officials urged people to get an influenza jab by mid-December as outbreaks peak between late January and early March.