UK faces a ‘double-whammy’ of ‘Aussie flu’ cases as kids head back to school and experts warn of an ‘EXCEPTIONAL’ outbreak as travellers return from flu-hit France
The UK faces a ‘double-whammy’ of the dreaded ‘Aussie flu’ cases as kids head to school and swarms of travellers return from flu-hit France.
The European country has been rocked by an ‘exceptional’ outbreak, with nearly 12,000 people having been left hospitalised and more than 30 dead.
Figures show the UK is heading the same way, with scientists concerned the flu causing havoc on the over-stretched NHS is ‘unpredictable’.
And flocks of children heading back to school this week after enjoying the festive break could lead to a ‘danger period’, virologists fear.
Most of the fears stem from an aggressive strain, dubbed ‘Aussie flu’, which caused nearly triple the usual number of cases in Australia during its winter.
The H3N2 subtype, a strain of influenza A responsible for the surge Down Under, is one of many attacking Britain at the same time, Government data shows.
Usually, just one subtype, either influenza A or B, is responsible for the majority of cases. It spreads much easier in the cold weather.
H3N2, which some fear could prove as deadly to humanity as the Hong Kong flu in 1968 when one million people died, is behind most of the cases in France.
Professor John Oxford, a virologist at Queen Mary University, London, told The Sun: ‘Now is the danger period. Kids are very good at picking up infections then passing them on at home.
‘With large numbers travelling backwards and forwards from France we may see more cases. It could well be a double-whammy.’
The Ministry of Health in France issued an alert about flu earlier this week, warning that the outbreak has still yet to reach its peak.
It read: ‘The influenza epidemic is of an exceptional magnitude, by the number of cases, which risks exceeding those of the last two years.’
The rocketing cases prompted Marisol Touraine, the country’s health minister, to delay non-urgent operations to free up hospital beds.
This controversial move was mirrored by Jeremy Hunt last week, with the NHS having being plunged into chaos amid a spike in flu cases.
Mr Hunt, made Health and Social Secretary in Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet reshuffle yesterday, made the unprecedented decision to cancel 55,000 operations.
Just two areas of the UK are believed to be free of the potentially fatal bug, which has forced GPs to cancel holidays and work late into the night.
Figures released yesterday show cases of the contagious virus have soared by 70 per cent in a week – with 2,810 new people struck down in the last seven days.
This winter’s outbreak appears to be nine times more severe than that of 2015/16 – when just 296 cases of flu had been recorded at the same point.
During that winter, Government figures suggested the winter flu played a role in more than 16,000 deaths. Only 577 were recorded in the previous winter.
However, this winter’s outbreak shows no signs of slowing down, as flu cases are expected to rocket even further in the coming weeks.
Nearly 50 people have already been killed by the bug this year and at least 1,078 people have been hospitalised – 252 of which were caused by the ‘Aussie flu’ strain.
Some 137 were caused by H1N1, which triggered the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic that killed 50 million. A further 291 strains of influenza A were unidentified.
Professor Andrew Easton, a leading virologist at Warwick University, told MailOnline that there is nothing unusual about this year’s outbreak so far.
However, on the back of Public Health England figures released today, he warned that ‘you really can’t predict how it’s going to go’.
Speaking exclusively, he said: ‘Every year there are problems because of outbreaks, and while predictable, they do cause difficulties.
‘If numbers do continue to rise then those problems will continue and won’t go away and they will put much more pressure on the system.
‘But we’re going to have to wait and see, you just don’t know. We would expect the increases to continue for a few weeks before it reaches its normal peak’.
Flu is also ‘actively circulating’ in Ireland, with less than ten people having lost their lives to the killer virus so far in this winter’s outbreak.
And in the US, the flu is already gripping 36 states and has killed at least 70 people in the US, according to data released by the CDC on Friday.
Australia – whose winter occurs during the British summer – had one of its worst outbreaks on record, with two and a half times the normal number of cases.
Some of the country’s A&E units had ‘standing room only’ after being swamped by more than 100,000 cases of the H3N2 strain.
The elderly with their compromised immune systems are particularly susceptible, and a spike in cases among young children has also been shown.
The flu season in the UK and the rest of the Northern Hemisphere tends to mirror what has happened in Australia and the Southern Hemisphere.
The same strains of the virus will circulate north in time for the British flu season, which typically begins in November and lasts until March.
Flu viruses are constantly changing proteins on their surface to avoid detection by the body’s immune system – making it more deadly.
This transformation is called an ‘antigenic shift’ if it’s large enough, and can lead to a pandemic. This was responsible for the swine flu outbreak in 2009.
The Aussie flu is transforming quickly, but not fast enough for experts to describe it as a shift. However, it is slowly building up immunity.
The new PHE figures follow concerns by researchers that the jab may only be 20 per cent effective this winter – just like last year.
Studies have suggested the H3N2 strain, used in the jab created by World Health Organization scientists, has mutated to evade detection.
Some experts in Australia blamed this as a reason why they suffered such a severe flu outbreak. The vaccine used in the UK will be very similar.
The WHO creates the vaccines in March, based on which flu strains they expected to be in circulation. They are then doled out in September.
And health officials admitted last week that a flu jab that has already been dished out to thousands may be targeting the wrong strain of the virus.
PHE announced the trivalent vaccine, often used by GPs because it is cheaper, is not effective against a common type of influenza B which is currently circulating.
An analysis of 25 cases of influenza B revealed 21 of them have been caused by the B/Yamagata type – which isn’t covered by the cheaper jab.
NHS England penned a letter to all GPs earlier in the week warning the vaccine has ‘showed no significant effectiveness in this group over recent seasons’.
Figures show 11 million people deemed at risk, including pregnant women, the over-65s and children under the age of two, received the flu jab in 2016.