'Killer' Australian flu strain set to spread across UK, experts warn
By Daily Mail Reporter
Last updated at 4:35 PM on 29th December 2008
Old people are particularly vulnerable to the flu, and hospitals are struggling to cope
Experts are warning that the current outbreaks of flu are expected to intensify in the new year as the Australian strain that can be fatal spreads across the UK.
The current flu epidemic - already on course to be the worst for eight years - will get worse as the infection usually peaks between January and March, they warn.
The European Influenza Surveillance Scheme (EISS) says the H3N2 Brisbane 10 flu strain that caused a severe epidemic and killed six children in Australia is spreading - with the UK, Ireland, Bulgaria and Spain experiencing it at 'medium intensity'.
The UK Health Protection Agency and the Royal College of GPs have reported a sharp rise in the number of flu-like illnesses over the past two weeks, with pensioners being the worst-hit.
The sharp rise left the NHS struggling to cope over Christmas. Thousands of GPs' surgeries close over this period, leaving sufferers with nowhere to go for help except accident and emergency wards.
But hospitals are already under more pressure than usual because of outbreaks of the winter vomiting bug norovirus.
Latest figures show that among the over-65s, 45 in every 100,000 people now have flu, up from just 18 a week ago.
Though it is still the 15 to 44 age group who are reporting the most cases, with a rate of 80 per 100,000, it is the elderly who are most likely to die from flu.
This year's outbreak, blamed on an Australian strain of the virus called Brisbane H3N2, is well on course to be the worst since 1999, when 22,000 people died.
However, an outbreak does not officially become an epidemic until the rate is higher than 200 per 100,000. The last time this happened was in 1989.
Professor Steve Field, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said: 'Older age groups are now showing increases, and they have the most serious consequences - the extra load on the lungs, possible viral pneumonia and the increased risk of contracting a second bacterial infection.
'The NHS is coping remarkably well in the circumstances, although there are some very desperate problems in the West Midlands.
'And on top of norovirus, which is causing ward closures in some areas, there is a lot of pressure on the NHS.
cell virus infection
A human cell infected with the pneumonia virus
'The outbreak is affecting young adults and many of these are health service workers. When added together, there are a lot of problems.
'The influenza vaccination programme has been good in some areas but patchy in others. It is these areas where the NHS will take a big hit.'
John Heyworth, incoming president of the College of Emergency Medicine, said most people with flu would not need to see a health professional and would be fine within two or three days.
But he added: 'The bottom line is that if people can't access care in the community and need to see someone, they should come to accident and emergency because we don't want bad things to happen. If there is any doubt, we are happy to help.'
The Health Protection Agency said: ''Although it is too early to predict how much further flu will increase, the agency's advice is to be alert to symptoms. These can include a headache, fever, cough, sore throat, and aching muscles and joints.
'For the majority of people, flu is an unpleasant, but not life-threatening, illness. But it can be dangerous for certain groups, such as the elderly or those with heart problems, diabetes or asthma and those who are immuno-compromised.
'It is important that they take up the offer of free flu vaccination at their local surgery.
'If you get flu, our advice is to stay at home, rest, drink plenty of fluids and use over-the-counter remedies if they make you more comfortable.'
Those with flu could reduce their chances of passing it on to others by washing hands regularly, covering their mouths and noses when sneezing, using tissues and disposing of them correctly, the agency said.
David Nicholson, NHS Chief Executive, said: 'Thanks to the extra resources, staff and hospital capacity we've put in over the last ten years, along with better planning, the NHS is well prepared for winter.
'There is always more pressure on the NHS at this time of year, with more accidents, flu and health problems associated with the colder weather, and this winter is no exception. Our staff are working hard and doing great work to respond to this extra demand and I am very grateful for all their efforts.
'During times of increased pressure, we all need to think responsibly about whether our health issues are a genuine emergency and use NHS resources carefully.'
Conservative health spokesman Andrew Lansley said: 'In recent years the Government has rather complacently assumed winter crises don't happen any more. I know the NHS will respond well, but I regret that ministers have let bed numbers fall.'
All over 65s are entitled to the flu vaccine on the NHS, and around 70 per cent have taken it up.
Others only get it if they are deemed 'at risk'. Those on the at-risk register include people with breathing problems or asthma, people with heart problems or high blood pressure, kidney failure, liver disease, diabetes, those who have had a stroke or people on immuno-suppressive drugs.
Everyone else has to do without - or pay for their jab privately.