Concerned health chiefs are crossing their fingers that the NHS doesn’t get bombarded with the major Aussie flu outbreak that is expected this winter.
Routine operations could ‘cease for several months’ if the over-stretched health service falls victim to the bug that is on its way to the UK after blighting Australia, experts warn.
They have already stressed that the H3N2 strain could pose the same threat to humanity as the Hong Kong flu in 1968, which killed one million people.
And the under-prepared NHS will ‘break’ if Aussie flu does strike the nation as viciously as expected, the Society for Acute Medicine (SAM) claims. The number of people waiting for surgery on the NHS is already at its highest level in a decade.
Dr Nick Scriven, president of SAM, which represents doctors who look after patients admitted as an emergency who do not need surgery, said a bad flu season could ‘overwhelm’ the NHS.
Routine operations could ‘cease for several months’ if the over-stretched health service falls victim to the bug that is on its way to the UK after blighting Australia, experts warn
They have already stressed that the H3N2 strain could pose the same threat to humanity as the Hong Kong flu in 1968, which killed one million people
He said: ‘Over the last two to three years we haven’t had to deal with any major outbreaks of infection such as norovirus or flu.
‘But this year we are predicting a bad flu season that will overwhelm us after what we’ve witnessed in Australia and New Zealand.
‘For all the talk of preparations, on the ground it feels as though nothing’s new this year other than crossed fingers – which is fair comment as the government has failed to tackle effectively the issues behind the pressures we face.’
‘If, as we expect, we see a flu outbreak, I think the NHS – in terms of both beds and clinical staff – will break far worse than last year and elective activity will almost certainly cease for several months.’
THE HONG KONG FLU OUTBREAK IN 1968
Between one and four million people were killed during the Hong Kong flu outbreak in 1968, figures estimate.
The H3N2 strain was responsible. This is the same strain that caused havoc in Australia during their winter.
The virus was noted for being highly contagious, with it infecting 500,000 people within two weeks of the first case.
Over the course of a year, it spread to Vietnam, Singapore, India, Australia, Europe, the US, Japan, Africa and South America.
Official performance data this summer already revealed that nearly four million patients were waiting for routine operations in June.
Figures showed 3.83 million patients on the waiting list for non-urgent hospital care in June – an increase of 20,000 on May.
Experts slammed the ‘terrible’ NHS England statistics and suggested they were a ‘wake-up call’ for the need of more funding.
Simon Stevens, the head of the NHS, warned last month that the virus could cause ‘much more pressure’ for hospitals and GP surgeries.
Australia – whose winter occurs during our summer – had one of its worst outbreaks on record, with two and a half times the normal number of cases.
Official figures are yet to confirm how many people have lost their lives to this year’s outbreak, but 370 reported deaths.
There are concerns the vaccine, made by World Health Organisation scientists, will prove to be ineffective as it will not match the H3N2 strain
Professor Paul Van Buynder, chairman of the Immunisation Coalition, previously said it was the ‘largest outbreak we’ve seen for some time’.
The elderly with their compromised immune systems are particularly susceptible, and a spike in cases among children between the ages of five and nine was also noted.
HEALTH CHIEFS ARE CONCERNED
The comments come as a separate poll found that more than nine in 10 health and care leaders across England are ‘concerned’ about their organisation’s ability to cope this winter.
NHS Confederation found only 8 per cent of chief executives were confident that their organisation would cope well throughout the season.
Some 131 health leaders were surveyed from acute hospital trusts, community services and mental health trusts.
‘The health and care system in England is in a fragile state and it is fair to say many organisations will struggle to meet expectations over the next few months,’ said Niall Dickson, chief executive of NHS Confederation – a membership body for NHS providers and commissioners.
‘Last year it was said that the service was ‘just about coping’, but for many of our members this year looks more challenging.
‘Not only is there the prospect of ongoing pressure – high bed occupancy and delayed transfers of care blockages – but the worry too of a serious flu attack combined with bad weather.’
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.
There are concerns the vaccine, made by World Health Organisation scientists, will prove to be ineffective as it will not match the H3N2 strain.
Scientists create the vaccines in March, based on which flu strains they expect to be in circulation. They are then doled out in September.
Some Australian experts have blamed the severe outbreak on the vaccine not matching, due to it having mutated. The vaccine used in the UK will be very similar.
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.
Professor Robert Booy, an expert on infectious diseases at the University of Sydney, said the strain will likely reach Britain through travellers.
In 2015, Government figures suggested that the winter flu played a part in more than 16,000 deaths. Only 577 deaths were recorded in the previous winter.
Health officials later admitted that the flu vaccine given to millions of patients the previous winter had been ineffective.
Initial analysis by Public Health England showed it worked in just 3 per cent of cases, this was later revised up to 30 per cent of cases.
Normally flu vaccines are effective against two thirds of cases so this was still substantially below average.
WHERE CAN YOU GET THE FLU JAB?
Flu can be a serious illness. If you become very ill with it, it can cause complications such as pneumonia, inflammation of the heart, brain or muscle, and kidney failure.
People at most risk of serious illness or death if they get flu are offered the vaccine on the NHS. Ideally you should have this before the end of December, when flu peaks (it takes about two weeks after the jab for antibodies to develop completely).
At-risk groups include anyone aged 65 and over; people living in long-stay residential care homes; carers and pregnant women.
The vaccine is also offered to anyone aged six months to 65 years with certain conditions, such as diabetes.
It is available via your GP’s surgery.
All children aged two to eleven (on August 31, 2017) are also offered the vaccine as a nasal spray. The UK introduced the child vaccination programme in 2013 — last year, the vaccine had 66 per cent effectiveness. Australia does not have a similar programme.
If you don’t qualify to have the jab on the NHS, you can pay to get it at a pharmacy.
Well Pharmacy charges £9 to £14 (depending on the number of strains in the vaccine), Superdrug from £9.99, Lloyds Pharmacy £10, Boots £12.99, and Tesco £9.
Older children who fall outside the NHS scheme can get the nasal spray vaccine from some pharmacies such as Well (£23 for those aged between two and 18; this may involve a second dose at least four weeks later for another £23) and the injection for those 12 and over for £9.
Boots offers the jab to those aged 16 and over at £12.99. Tesco offers it to those 12 and over at £9.