The Health Protection Agency (HPA), UK, reported today that flu activity across the nation is now dropping, with A H1N1 (2009) swine flu and influenza B virus strains being the main causes of infection. The Agency added that a relatively small proportion of influenza continues to progress to complications, which tend to affect younger patients (under 65).

The weekly number of people visiting their GPs in England has fallen from 108.4 per 100,000 two weeks ago to 66.5 over the last week.

The number of ‘at risk’ individuals aged under 65 who have received a jab now stands at 48%. 71.7% of everyone aged over 65 have been vaccinated.

Since October, the beginning of the current flu season, 254 patients have died from influenza. Most of the new deaths reported to the HPA today occurred over a week ago. The HPA adds that because of the Christmas and New Year holidays, which created a backlog, 142 new deaths have been reported today – most of them occurred before the last week.

Of the 254 confirmed deaths so far:

  • Data are available on 214 of them
  • 195 were infected with the H1N1 (2009) “swine flu” virus strain
  • 3 had untyped influenza A
  • 16 had influenza B
  • Most of the fatalities occurred among patients under the age of 65 years. 11 five-to-fourteen year olds, and 137 fifteen to sixty-four year olds. 55 of the patients who died were at least 65.
  • 7 children aged under five have died so far this flu season (since October)
  • 81% of all deaths occurred among clinically “at risk” individuals (those recommended to have the vaccine)
  • 83% of those who died had not been vaccinated

According to Professor John Watson, head of the respiratory diseases department at the HPA:

“Our latest flu report suggests levels of flu are declining across the UK but nonetheless flu is still circulating in the community and the message remains that people in an at-risk group should get the seasonal flu vaccine – it’s not too late to protect yourself from flu this season.

Flu is an unpleasant but self-limiting illness for most people but we can’t stress enough how it can be an extremely serious illness for people in ‘at risk’ groups, including pregnant women, the elderly and those with other underlying conditions such as heart problems, diabetes, lung, liver or renal diseases and those who have weakened immune systems.

Most people with flu can ‘self care’ by taking plenty of rest, drinking lots of fluids and taking over the counter pain relievers such as paracetamol. But anyone displaying severe symptoms, particularly those in vulnerable groups should contact their GP or local out-of-hours service for medical advice.

Ongoing HPA surveillance continues to indicate a modest increase in cases of some invasive bacterial infections such as pneumococcal and meningococcal disease and invasive Group A streptococcal Infection (iGAS) which may follow on from or be associated with influenza. Although we expect to see more cases of these bacterial infections during the winter months the HPA is monitoring the situation closely and currently investigating whether co-infection with flu is contributing to these increases.

As a result of this surveillance, the Chief Medical Officer last week reminded front line clinicians to be aware of the signs and symptoms of certain bacterial infections and remain vigilant for the possibility of severe illness due to possible co-infection with influenza. The severity of these conditions means that prompt identification and treatment are essential.”

Prof Watson stressed that behaviors to stem the spread of the virus are crucial. These include covering the nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing, disposing of paper handkerchiefs and cleaning hands immediately after usage. If you have no handkerchief, cough into the inside of your elbow rather than your hands which could then touch things and people and spread the virus.

The Winterwatch Report informs on how well the National Health Service (NHS) is managing the winter pressures.

Sources: HPA, NHS

Written by Christian Nordqvist