The flu death toll across the UK has hit 149 as the winter outbreak continues to wreak havoc, official figures reveal.
Fatalities have soared by 45 per cent while cases are still accelerating, raising fears this could end up being the worst outbreak in 50 years.
Some 120 flu deaths have been recorded in England, 21 are known to have died in Scotland and eight in Northern Ireland. No precise data exists for Wales.
Thousands have been hospitalised by flu across the UK, as four strains of the killer virus attack the population, including the ‘Aussie’ and ‘Japanese’ strains.
The latter is responsible for nearly half of all hospitalisations recorded, while the dreaded H3N2 strain that rocked Australia caused a fifth of them.
The outbreak could last until March, researchers from Melbourne and Sydney universities have predicted as they discovered the killer virus tends to circulate for a grueling 15 weeks.
Cases have reached their worst levels in seven years, since 2010/11, as the number of people visiting their doctor with symptoms rise by 40 per cent in a week.
The outbreak, already 16 times worse than last year’s, is piling extra pressure on an over-stretched NHS with conditions the worst some doctors claim to have seen.
It comes as the Government has declared a bird flu prevention zone across the whole of England, as more dead wild birds were found with the virus.
Fatalities have soared by 45 per cent while cases are still accelerating amid fears of the worst outbreak in 50 years that could last until March
Officials have warned this winter’s flu outbreak is the ‘most significant’ in seven years – but graphs suggest it has peaked and is slowing down.
Professor Paul Cosford, medical director, Public Health England warned there is a mix of flu types circulating the UK this year.
He said: ‘Our data continues to show that more people are visiting GPs with flu symptoms and we are seeing more people admitted to hospital with flu.
‘In terms of hospital admission, this is the most significant flu season since the winter of 2010/11 and the preceding pandemic year of 2009 although it is not an epidemic.’
And a new study has found outbreaks tend to last four months, which experts fear will only pour further misery on the health service.
According to the analysis, made by Australian researchers, this winter’s outbreak has roughly seven weeks left to run – roughly until March.
Researchers from Sydney and Melbourne universities discovered Australia suffers from flu outbreaks that last around 15 weeks on average.
Their analysis of flu outbreaks endured in the country between 2006 and 2016 was published in the journal PLOS Pathogens.
MOTHER’S HEARTACHE AS HER 18-YEAR-OLD DAUGHTER DIES FROM FLU
An 18-year-old girl has become the tragic victim of the flu, her heartbroken mother has revealed.
Bethany Walker, from Applecross, died after taking ill at home – initially from flu symptoms which later developed into pneumonia.
Miss Walker was airlifted to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness but died later last Friday. Tributes have poured in on social media.
Bethany Walker, from Applecross, died after taking ill at home – initially from flu symptoms which later developed into pneumonia
Her mother Heather Teale wrote on Facebook: ‘I am broken, the bottom has fallen out of my world.
‘I have my mum with me, and my wonderful son Danny Walker who are both feeling the same loss as I am.
‘Life will never be the same again. Bethany, I love you to the moon and back, I always have and I always will, you were the best daughter I could have ever wished for and I will always be the proudest mum in the world.
‘I have no more words. I’m truly devastated. Sleep tight my beautiful girl, your brother and I will love you forever, you will never be out of my thoughts as long as I live.’
Miss Walker wanted to study midwifery and was due to head for Aberdeen University later this year.
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.
Week 48 was roughly when the UK’s outbreak began, statistics show, suggesting week 9 – the first week on March – would be the last.
Shamir Patel, director of online pharmacist Chemist-4-U, said: ‘If you analyse these new stats, the outbreaks in Australia each lasted for around 15 weeks every year.
‘According to Public Health England, Britain’s own outbreak has been ongoing since the end of November 2017.
BIRD FLU PREVENTION ZONE DECLARED
A bird flu prevention zone has been declared across the whole of England, as more dead wild birds were found with the virus.
The move, announced by the Government’s chief veterinary officer Nigel Gibbens, means all poultry and bird keepers in England have to follow strict measures to protect their livestock from the disease.
It comes as 13 dead wild birds were confirmed to have the virus in Warwickshire, following the discovery of the disease in wild birds in Dorset, where a total of 31 infected birds have now been identified.
A local prevention zone was put in place in Dorset, which has now been extended to the whole of England.
Testing of the birds in Warwickshire is ongoing but it is thought they had the H5N6 strain of the virus which has been circulating in wild populations in Europe in recent months, and which is deadly to birds.
But officials said it was a different variant of H5N6 from the one which affected people in China last year, and the risk to public health was very low.
‘So if these sorts of time-frames were to be replicated here in the UK, the NHS could be dealing with a deluge of cases right up until the middle of March.
‘We all need to be prepared for such an eventuality.’
If the outbreak does last that long, which happened in the UK last winter, thousands more fatalities could be expected in the coming weeks.
Health agencies for each of the home nations monitor ‘excess deaths’ – how many more people die than expected – to give a rough estimate.
However, Public Health England, Health Protection Scotland and Northern Ireland’s Public Health Agency all provide data on how many have died in intensive care.
This means the death toll of 141 is likely to only be a fraction of the true number. A rough victim count will be tallied at some point later this year.
Deaths have already risen to worrying levels in Scotland, with Northern Ireland also now showing a ‘statistically significant’ amount of excess deaths.
Wales is being hit the hardest, with flu symptoms reported in GP consultations being considered ‘high’. The rest of the UK falls under the ‘moderate’ bracket.
This is how officials announce an epidemic, with each country having its own criteria per how often flu symptoms are reported per 100,000 patients.
- In England, 53.1 GP consultations per 100,000 report flu symptoms. An epidemic would be defined as breaching 108.9 per 100,000.
- In Scotland, 114.0 GP consultations per 100,000 report flu symptoms. An epidemic would be defined as breaching 418.9 per 100,000.
- In Northern Ireland, 65.2 GP consultations per 100,000 report flu symptoms. An epidemic would be defined as breaching 142.4 per 100,000.
- In Wales, 64.9 GP consultations per 100,000 report symptoms. An epidemic would be defined as breaching 75.4 per 100,000.
Patients visiting their GP with flu symptoms have increased since last week, with an 80 per cent jump noted in Wales.
England has seen a 43 per cent jump, Northern Ireland a 25 per cent jump. Scotland appears to have hit the peak, with just a 6 per cent jump.
ASPIRING RAPPER, 15 DIES FROM THE ‘FLU’
Sean Hughes, from Dublin, passed away in hospital on Friday from ‘flu’
A 15-year-old boy died from the ‘flu’, his heartbroken parents have revealed.
Sean Hughes, from Dublin, passed away in hospital on Friday – after being rushed for emergency treatment the evening before.
Doctors were adamant the aspiring rapper, known to his friends as Lil’ Red, had the flu when they saw him on Wednesday.
Tributes have flooded in for Sean, who was ‘loved by everyone’ and described as a ‘larger-than-life young man’ who was ‘way ahead of his years’.
Speaking at their family home, his grieving father Joe told the Irish Sun: ‘We are still waiting for answers.
‘It was a very bad chest infection to start off with and there were complications after that.
‘He went into the hospital. He had the chest infection a few days before that. He just passed away after a sudden illness.’
His mother, Karen, revealed they took him to the GP on Wednesday – two days before he died – to discuss his flu-like symptoms.
The doctor said ‘he has the flu’. His condition rapidly worsened and he was taken to Temple Street Hospital on the Thursday.
His parents are reluctant to talk about Sean’s death because they can’t confirm that it was the flu that killed him.
Hundreds of relatives, friends and locals have since visited the family’s home to pay their respects for the young rapper.
Touching stories of how Sean, a fan of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, helped the elderly and bullying victims have also been unearthed.
His father plans to give out some of his CDs in the next few days as the community copes with the ‘big impact’ his death has had.
Figures from PHE and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine estimate 15.3 per cent of people have been left suffering flu-like illness in the past week.
This equates to around nine million people in the UK, considering the population of the four home nations is around 65 million.
The rocketing number of flu cases in the UK has been put down to a surge in four aggressive subtypes attacking the population simultaneously.
One includes the so-called ‘Aussie flu’, a strain of influenza A which triggered triple the number of expected cases in Australia during the country’s winter.
WHAT FLU STRAINS ARE IN THE UK?
There are many different types of flu circulating around the world, but four main types are being seen in Britain this winter.
H3N2 – Dubbed ‘Aussie flu’ after it struck Australia hard last winter, this strain is more likely to affect the elderly, who do not respond well to the current vaccine. This is one of the most common strains seen so far this winter, with 63 confirmed cases seen in official laboratories.
H1N1 – This strain – known as ‘swine flu’ – is generally more likely to hit children, who respond well to vaccination. This has been seen nearly as often as H3N2 so far this year, with 50 cases confirmed in labs. In the past it was only commonly caught from pigs, but that changed in 2009 when it started spreading rapidly among humans in a major global pandemic.
B / Yamagata – This is known as ‘Japanese flu’. Only people who received the ‘four strain’ vaccine – which is being slowly rolled out after it was introduced for the first time this winter – are protected against the Yamagata strain. Those who received the normal ‘three strain’ vaccine are not protected, and it has been seen in 63 lab cases so far this winter.
B / Victoria – This strain is vaccinated against in the normal ‘three strain’ vaccine, but has hardly appeared so far this winter, with just four confirmed cases.
Experts fear the virulent H3N2 strain, which has now reached the UK, could prove as deadly to humanity as the Hong Kong flu in 1968, which killed one million people.
Another is a strain of influenza B, called Yamagata and dubbed ‘Japanese flu’, which has been blamed for the majority of cases so far this winter.
Its rapid spread has raised concerns because it is not covered in a vaccine given to the elderly. However, experts claim it is less severe.
Usually, just one subtype, of either influenza A or B, is responsible for the majority of cases. The bug spreads easily in the cold weather.
Public Health England data, released Monday, showed there were 4,128 confirmed cases of flu in the week ending January 14.
Some 1,785 people were found to have influenza A, 2,278 were shown to have influenza B and a further 65 were unclassified.
This winter’s outbreak appears to be 16 times more severe than that of 2015/16 – when just 262 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.
Patients are dying in the corridors of overcrowded A&E units because there are not enough beds, leading doctors warned in a letter to the Prime Minister last week.
Health bosses have blamed the rapidly escalating cases of flu for their controversial decision to cancel 55,000 operations last week.
The same move was also made by French officials as the European country battles an epidemic of ‘exceptional magnitude’.
Nearly 12,000 people having been left hospitalised in France and more than 30 dead from the same strains of flu circulating the UK.
The Ministry of Health in France issued an alert about flu last 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.’
Nearly 12,000 people having been left hospitalised in France and more than 30 dead from the same strains of flu circulating the UK
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
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.
GIVE THE KIDS A LONGER BREAK…
An extended Christmas school holiday could have helped slow down the spread of so-called Aussie flu, according to new research.
Belgian scientists found extended school closures over the festive period could help mitigate the impact of killer flu strains.
Factors like travel have little to no affect on spread, but weekends when there is no school can slow down rates of infection, the researchers found.
Lead author Giancarlo De Luca, of Hasselt University, said: ‘Holidays considerably delay the peak of the season and mitigate its impact.
‘Weekends are important in slowing down the season by periodically dampening transmission.’
Writing in the journal BMC Infectious Diseases, he added: ‘An extension of the Christmas holiday of one week may further mitigate the epidemic.’
And in the US, the flu is already gripping 36 states and has killed at least 100 people, according to data released by the CDC.
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.
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.