By Michelle Roberts
Digital health editor
Cases of flu have climbed quickly in the past week in England, suggesting the season has begun earlier than normal, say officials.
People may have little immunity to flu after a break from the disease during Covid pandemic restrictions.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) says hospital and ICU admissions for the respiratory disease are rising the fastest in children under five.
Hospital rates are going up among the elderly too.
It’s not clear how big a wave the UK might be in for – levels are still relatively low overall.
But health experts are urging anyone who is eligible for a flu shot to get one.
Many southern hemisphere nations have just had their most rampant influenza season for years and officials have been warning that the UK must prepare for a big, early wave of flu too.
More than 40 million people, including young children, in the UK are being offered a flu vaccine.
The over-50s and younger adults with health conditions are also being offered a Covid booster jab this autumn and winter.
Vaccination can help prevent people getting very sick.
Both shots are recommended for those at higher risk of illness, which includes:
- everyone over 50
- pregnant women
- people with certain underlying health conditions
- care-home residents
- front-line health and social care workers
The UKHSA says this year’s flu jab is a good match for the type of seasonal influenza that is circulating – a strain called H3N2.
In Australia, which had a reasonably severe flu season during its winter, the jab was well matched to that strain. It is the same one that caused a bad flu season for the UK in 2017-18.
Dr Mary Ramsay, Director of Public Health Programmes at the UKHSA, said: “Our latest data shows early signs of the threat we expected to face from flu this season.
“We’re urging parents in particular not to be caught out as rates of hospitalisations and ICU admissions are currently rising fastest in children under five. This will be a concern for many parents and carers of young children, and we urge them to take up the offer of vaccination for eligible children as soon as possible.”
Experts use several measures to monitor flu, including reporting from GPs and the general public, as well as tests done in hospitals and in other healthcare settings.
In the week ending 16 October, the hospital admission rate for confirmed cases of flu was nearly one per 100,000 people – more than seen in recent years for mid-October, suggesting the flu season has come early. The rate is still relatively low overall. Cases were highest among young children, followed by adults over 85.
Meanwhile, Covid cases in the community and in hospitals appear to be stable or decreasing.
Dr Ramsay said: “It’s possible that we’re already seeing the benefits from so many people taking up their Covid autumn booster in England. Encouragingly, the latest data shows a small decrease in Covid cases and hospitalisation rates over the past week.
“There’s no room for complacency though, as cases could rise again at any point and we need to be armed in readiness through vaccination of everyone who’s eligible.”
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