Health experts urge people to get flu shots as UK braces for record surge | UK | News

Top doctors have urged people to get vaccinated against the flu (Image: GETTY)

A short, sharp wave of cases in Australia has sparked fears that a similar outbreak in the UK, due to low immunity, will increase pressure on an already creaking NHS. Currently, a record 35 million people are eligible to receive a flu shot.

Professor Robert Booy, an infectious disease expert at the University of Sydney, said many viruses had returned during Australia’s winter, from June to August.

He warned: “You can be pretty sure the UK will have at least a moderate and potentially severe respiratory viral season.

“It will be dominated by the flu and covid, but it will also include other viruses. You need to be preparing now.”

There have been almost no cases of flu in the UK in the last two years as Covid measures, including lockdowns, brought other viruses under control. However, that means immunity is likely to be low, leaving people more vulnerable.

This year more than 223,000 cases of flu were reported in Australia. They included 295 deaths and 1,763 hospital admissions.

In 2021, only 512 cases were recorded. There were no deaths.

A COVID-19 and flu screening clinic Sydney, Australia

A COVID-19 and flu screening clinic Sydney, Australia (Image: GETTY)

Professor Booy said: “The flu came early this year, which was unusual, and peaked quickly, then quickly disappeared.

“While previously it had been spread over three months, this time it was more like six to eight weeks. That was because we think a lot of viruses came back this year.

“All these viruses were spreading like crazy and competing with each other, so the combination of all of them caused a bad respiratory season.”

Professor Booy said immunity had waned, particularly among children aged one to three who had never been exposed to the flu.

The elderly also face a higher risk of not being around the virus for a couple of years.

Professor Booy said: “We don’t have optimal rates of immunization in young children or the elderly. We could do better, in the UK and here.”

Flu shots are being offered to a record number of people in the UK this year, including those over 50, healthcare workers, carers and mothers-to-be.

There are fears that even a moderate wave of respiratory infections could hit the struggling NHS.

The service did not get its usual summer reprieve and there has been record pressure on ambulances and emergency departments in recent months.

Professor Booy said Australia experienced “real pressure” on its health system, leading many regions to offer free flu shots for all ages.

He said vulnerable people should take “simple, common sense” steps like wearing a mask, keeping their distance, reducing the number of social guests and moving events outside.

Gary McLean, a professor of molecular immunology at London Metropolitan University, said there was “no better time” to get the annual flu shot and Covid booster.

He added: “We looked to the southern hemisphere to predict what the northern hemisphere influenza season might be and what dominant strains of the virus are circulating.

“With the expected increase in covid cases also occurring, we are likely to have a bad winter in terms of respiratory virus infections.”

Medicine professor Paul Hunter, from the University of East Anglia, warned that there may be “a big spike in infections and a lot of people getting quite sick”.

The health protection expert added: “Many people may not have had the flu for five years. Getting the flu shot, if offered, is the best thing you can do to protect yourself from this infection this winter.”

‘I need to protect my family this winter’

Lisa Taylor was the first patient to receive a flu shot at a major pharmacy this fall.

The 51-year-old from Chiswick, west London, received her vaccine at a Superdrug store.

She said: “I decided to arrange my flu vaccination earlier than I normally would due to uncertainties about the higher levels of flu this season. One of my children is immunocompromised and my parents are older and more vulnerable, so I must do everything I can to stay healthy and protect my family.”

Superdrug offers NHS and private flu shots and has seen an unprecedented 788% increase in bookings compared to 2021.

Niamh McMillan, the company’s pharmacy superintendent, said: “We have trained all of our pharmacists and nurses to offer the service in as many places as possible to help ensure the most vulnerable are protected.

“We are also in the process of setting up a series of COVID-19 vaccination clinics to help the public get their booster in the coming months. We are seeing unprecedented demand from the public looking to protect themselves and their families.”

COMMENT BY PROF. AZEEM MAJEED

The NHS is now starting to roll out flu shots for those who are eligible.

Although the public health focus since the beginning of 2020 has been largely on Covid-19, influenza remains a major threat to vulnerable people and the health service in the UK.

We’ve been lucky that in recent years, flu rates have been very low here.

However, there are signs from Australia that we may see much higher rates of influenza this winter. Australia has seen its highest flu rates since the start of the Covid crisis and this may be a predictor of what the UK may face during our own winter.

Because flu rates have been low in recent years, this means that people will have less immunity from a previous infection.

The end of COVID-19 control measures, such as the wearing of masks and social distancing, combined with the return of normal social activities, also increases the likelihood of a major flu outbreak this winter.

This makes flu vaccination essential, especially for the elderly, the clinically vulnerable, and people working in health and social care.

You can get your flu shot from a variety of places, such as your GP’s office or a local pharmacy.

Getting vaccinated against the flu reduces the risk of infection and more serious illness
which can result in hospitalization or death.

By getting vaccinated, you are also helping to reduce pressures on the NHS at a time when it faces unprecedented demands for care.

So don’t delay. Get your flu shot if you are eligible to protect yourself and the NHS.

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