General News

Unpredictable flu season expected this winter

Besi Besemar October 5, 2014

Public Health England (PHE) and NHS prepare for unpredictable flu season and urge at-risk audiences to take up free flu vaccination.

Public Health England

PHE have launched a national seasonal flu campaign, encouraging uptake of the flu vaccine among the most at-risk groups. The campaign – across press, radio and online channels – targets people of all ages with a health condition, pregnant women and parents of children aged 2 to 4.

Each winter hundreds of thousands of people see their GP and tens of thousands are hospitalised because of flu. Last winter, PHE received reports of 904 people admitted to intensive care or high dependency units with laboratory confirmed flu and, of them, 11% (98 people) died.

This does not account for the many deaths where flu is not recognised or reported –  estimates of the annual number of deaths attributable to flu range from 4 to 14,000 per year, with an average of around 8,000 per year.

For most healthy people, flu is an unpleasant but usually self-limiting disease with recovery taking up to a week. However, older people, the very young, pregnant women and those with a health condition, particularly chronic respiratory conditions such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease, or those with a weakened immune system are at particular risk from the more serious effects of flu.

People with flu are approximately 11 times more likely to die if they have an underlying health condition than if they don’t.

Despite this, only 52% of people aged 6 months to 65 years living with an underlying condition putting them at risk of severe infection took up the offer of the free flu vaccine during 2013/14.

Pregnant women are encouraged not to put off the free flu vaccination this winter. Pregnancy naturally weakens the body’s immune system and as a result, increases the risk of a mother and unborn baby becoming seriously ill from flu.

Since 2013, 2 and 3 year olds have been eligible for flu vaccination with a newly available nasal spray, and this year the spray is also being offered to 4 year olds. However, nearly half (48%) of mums are not aware of this quick, effective and painless way to protect children from flu[iv] with uptake only around 40% in 2-3 year olds in 2013/14.

Last year’s flu season was less severe than some we have seen but flu is an unpredictable virus and it is impossible to predict the impact of the disease and how many serious cases there might be as new strains might circulate each year with varying intensity. This reinforces the need for annual flu vaccination among these key groups – including those aged 65 and over who have historically good uptake rates at around 75%.

The national campaign is being launched to encourage those eligible for the vaccine free on the NHS to contact their GP or pharmacist.

Dame Sally Davies
Dame Sally Davies

Professor Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer, said: “Flu is a really unpleasant illness, particularly for our most vulnerable patients and it is essential that people take steps to protect themselves during the winter months. I would urge those who are offered the free flu vaccination to visit their GP early in the flu season. I also urge all health care workers to make they are vaccinated to protect themselves, their patients and their families”.

Dr Paul Cosford
Dr Paul Cosford

Dr Paul Cosford, Director for Health Protection and Medical Director at Public Health England added: “The nasal spray is quick, easy and painless way to help prevent pre-school age children catching flu and the vaccine also helps to reduce the spread of flu to those who are more vulnerable.

“People with certain long-term health conditions are at much greater risk of becoming seriously unwell if they catch flu and sadly, many end up in hospital. The best way people can protect themselves from flu is to take up the offer of free vaccination from their GP as soon as it becomes available. Even people whose health conditions are well managed and who lead otherwise healthy lives should still have the flu vaccine – it’s free because you need it.

“Last year, around 40 per cent of pregnant women protected themselves and their baby from flu by getting vaccinated.  This year we want to see more pregnant women and their babies protected. Women can safely have the vaccine at any point during pregnancy and it can reduce the risk of complications such as pneumonia and premature birth, that can arise as a result of flu.”