'Festive Flu' Warning From NHS as Figures Show Cases Rising

Peter Russell

December 16, 2019

Cases of influenza could peak over the Christmas holidays, senior health experts warned.

England's chief medical officer (CMO), the NHS, and Public Health England (PHE) appealed to people to get vaccinated, as the latest figures showed the rate of flu-like illness above baseline threshold level for the time of year.

Latest surveillance data from PHE showed that in Week 49, ending the 8th December:

  • Hospitalisation rates for flu were at 'moderate' intensity levels with a rate of 5.06 per 100,000 people, compared with 4.01 in the previous week

  • Rates for intensive care/high dependency unit admission were above baseline levels, with a rate of 0.22 per 100,000 people, compared with 0.15 in week 48

  • GP consultation rates for flu were above baseline thresholds for the first time this season with a rate of 13.1 per 100,000 people a rise of 24% on the previous week

Rising Numbers of Cases Prompts Vaccine Appeal

NHS England said that hundreds of thousands could see their holiday plans "turn to misery" if flu levels rose as expected in late December and early January.

Prof Chris Whitty, England's CMO, said: "The winter flu season has started early in the UK and it is important that everyone who is eligible gets the flu jab from their GP or pharmacist.

"The vaccine is the best defence against flu whilst practising sensible hygiene can reduce the spread of flu."

Experts said current evidence suggested that this season's vaccine was well matched for the main strain of flu circulating in the community.

Vaccine Uptake Rates

Almost 7.5 million eligible children and adults missed out on their free NHS vaccination last year.

This year, more people aged 65 and over in England have been vaccinated than at the same point in the season last year.

Provisional figures up to week 49 showed that the proportion of people in targeted groups who had received the flu vaccine were (week 48 figs in brackets):

  • 37.1% in under 65s in a clinical risk group (35.4%)

  • 38.8% in pregnant women (37.5%)

  • 68.5% in 65+ year olds (67.5%)

Nasal Spray Supply Delays

However, supply problems for the flu nasal spray, offered for the first time this year to all primary school children, led to delays in the vaccination programme. Provisional data showed uptake was between 15.2% in year 6, and 17.9% in reception age children up until 31st October.

Vaccine delivery delays have also led to a lower than usual uptake among 2 to 3-year-olds, with only 28% receiving the vaccine up until 8th December.

As some school vaccination programmes would not take place until the start of next term in January, PHE advised parents of at-risk children to contact their GP immediately to arrange a vaccination appointment.

Prof Yvonne Doyle, PHE medical director, said: "No one wants to see their children suffering with flu. Far from a common cold, flu can have serious consequences for young children and those with underlying medical conditions.

"There's still a week before Christmas. Parents of 2 to 3-year-olds or those with underlying medical conditions should not delay – get your children vaccinated as soon as possible."

Prof Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director, said children were "super spreaders of flu, particularly around the holiday season when they're more likely to see elderly relatives".

PHE said it had re-activated the 'Catch It, Bin It, Kill It' campaign, to help prevent the spread of influenza this winter.

Winter Flu Strains

The latest surveillance figures reported 165 new acute respiratory outbreaks in England over the previous 7 days. There were:

  • 49 outbreaks in care homes, where 22 tested positive for influenza A

  • 17 outbreaks in hospitals, where 13 tested positive for influenza A

  • 94 outbreaks reported in schools, where 26 tested positive for influenza A

This year, the strains used in flu vaccines are:

  • An A/Brisbane/02/2018 (H1N1)pdm09-like virus

  • An A/Kansas/14/2017 (H3N2)-like virus

  • A B/Colorado/06/2017-like virus (B/Victoria/2/87 lineage)

  • A B/Phuket/3073/2013-like virus (B/Yamagata/16/88 lineage)

Worldwide, seasonal influenza A (H3N2) viruses accounted for the majority of cases.

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