The 2020 and 2021 flu seasons were mild, largely thanks to measures people took against COVID, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and using large amounts of hand gel. 2022, however, seems like a completely different pot of fish.
The southern hemisphere, where flu season begins, has been hit hard. Australia, for example, has had the worst flu season in five yearsand it has been hit by COVID, too. This year has been the first real chance for both viruses to circulate freely as all COVID restrictions have now been lifted.
It is strongly recommended that people in the UK get a flu shot and make sure they are up to date on their COVID vaccine boosters. Scientists aren’t sure how these viruses will fit together, but evidence suggests that being infected with both viruses simultaneously greatly increases the risk of serious illness and death.
On 33 million people People in the UK are eligible for a free flu shot, including people aged 50 and over, pregnant women, people in residential care and frontline healthcare workers. There is also a nasal spray vaccine for children two years and olderwith many vaccine launches delivered to schools.
Great pressure on the NHS
The flu usually has an “R number” between one and two, which means that, on average, each infected person will infect one or two other people. This level of flu transmission is significant.
In the UK, during the winters of 2017-18 and 2018-19, there were 46,215 and 39,670 flu-related hospital admissions respectively. And, as of early September 2022, there were 590 daily hospital admissions with COVID, and those numbers are rising.
NHS trusts are often under increased pressure during the winter. However, already in the fall, several health services report that their capacities are limited. Derriford Hospital in Plymouth had waits of up to 72 hours for A&E admission, while the East of England Ambulance Service it recently came close to declaring a “major incident.”
Nottingham Hospitals Trust declared a “critical incident” on September 29. the legacy of Boris Johnson’s pandemic government, with higher case and death rates than most comparable countries, has created further pressures across the health service, including hospitals and primary care. This does not bode well heading into a winter where there is a risk of high levels of both flu and COVID.
Despite the continued circulation of new variants and sub-variants, the COVID vaccine continues to provide high protection against serious illness and death. Flu strains also change each winter and are somewhat unpredictable. Therefore, the effectiveness of the influenza vaccine is variable, but generally between 40% and 60%.
Data of Australia provides an initial estimate of around 40% effectiveness for the 2022 flu season. However, this is still an important level of protection, with hospitalization rates among vaccinated people it is usually much lower than in unvaccinated populations.
Australian data is important to people in the UK and elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere. surveillance agencies look at the types of circulating viruses in the southern hemisphere, and use that data to decide the possible impact on their own countries, including the manufacture of the flu vaccine. Australian virology reports show the vast majority of their laboratory-confirmed cases were a strain of influenza called H3N2.
The UK Health Security Agency says this year’s flu shot is a good match for this strain.
With the added pressures already on the NHS, high uptake of the vaccine will be important. But wearing a mask can also help reduce the spread of the flu and COVID. Gathering outdoors or opening a window to improve ventilation can also help prevent further chains of transmission and decrease the chance of infecting vulnerable people.
The UK winter of 2022-23 will be a very good time to try to stay well, leaving some healthcare capacity for emergencies and vulnerable people.