Public Health England and NHS prepare for unpredictable flu season


At-risk audiences urged to take up free flu vaccination.

PHE's national seasonal flu campaign launches from today, encouraging uptake of the influenza (flu) vaccine among the most at-risk groups.

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. [i]

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 four to 14,000[ii] 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. [iii] Despite this, only 52% of people aged six 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, two and three-year-olds have been eligible for flu vaccination with a newly available nasal spray and this year the spray is also being offered to four 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 two- and three- 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%.

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".

References:

[i] Surveillance of influenza and other respiratory viruses in the UK: Winter 2013 to 2014 report. Page 13.

[ii] Green et al (2013). Mortality Attributable to Influenza in England and Wales Prior to, during and after the 2009 Pandemic. PLoS ONE 8(12): e79360. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0079360

[iii] Surveillance of influenza and other respiratory viruses in the UK. Winter 2010 to 2011 report. Page 50, table 9

[iv] TNS Seasonal Flu survey (pre) - Mums of 2-4 year olds

Watch Dr Sarah Jarvis' video about flu and the flu vaccine.