CANBERRA, Sept. 5 (Xinhua) -- The 2019 flu season was Australia's worst in recorded history, data has confirmed.
According to statistics released recently, there have been 257,359 laboratory confirmed cases of influenza so far in 2019, beating the previous record of 251,163 set in 2017.
"In terms of sheer numbers and the load on general practice and emergency departments, this is the worst flu season that's ever been," Paul van Buynder, an immunization expert from Griffith University, told News Corp Australia.
According to the local media report, there had been 587 deaths from the flu, the vast majority of which were of elderly people.
By comparison, there were only 52,000 confirmed cases of the flu in 2018 and 73 deaths.
Australia's flu season typically runs between June and September, but authorities were caught by surprise when the 2019 season started early.
In Canberra, Australia's capital city, the 3,402 confirmed cases of influenza so far in 2019 is more than the number of cases in 2016, 2017 and 2018 combined.
In response to the epidemic, Health Minister Greg Hunt announced on Sunday that every child aged between six months and five years will be eligible for free flu immunizations from 2020.
Previously only people considered high-risk such as pregnant women, the elderly and indigenous people could receive the vaccine free of charge.
"From early next year, for the first time, all Australian children aged six months to five years, not just those with medical risk factors, will be able to receive the seasonal flu vaccine free of charge," Hunt said.