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Prepare for high levels of respiratory illness this winter, say researchers

Prepare for high levels of respiratory illness this winter, say researchers

GPs are being warned to prepare for high levels of respiratory illness this winter – in addition to Covid – after researchers uncovered high levels of hospitalisations even during periods when stricter social distancing rules were in place.

Researchers from the University of Bristol found a high proportion of hospital admissions for respiratory illness during earlier phases of the pandemic were caused by infections other than Covid and concluded it does not bode well for the coming winter.

They looked at 135,014 hospitalisations from two large hospitals in Bristol between August 2020 and November 2021 and found 12,557 admissions attributable to acute lower respiratory tract disease.

Further analysis showed that of 12,248 hospitalisations for respiratory illness, 55% (6,909) were due to infection with no evidence of SARS-CoV-2.

Confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection only accounted for 26% of respiratory infections and the remaining 17% were due to infection with no infective cause.

This was at a time, the researchers noted in The Lancet Regional Health – Europe, when stricter public health measures as well as vaccination programmes had been in place.

It follows warnings from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) in a document outlining this year’s influenza vaccination programme, that flu rates this year could be equal to or higher than those seen before the pandemic.

In setting out the details of the upcoming influenza immunisation programme, UKHSA said: ‘As social contact returns to pre-pandemic norms, there is likely to be a resurgence in influenza activity in winter 2022 to 2023 to levels similar to, or higher than, before the pandemic.

‘The potential for co-circulation of influenza, Covid-19 (SARS-CoV-2) and other respiratory viruses could add substantially to pressures in the NHS in 2022 to 2023, by addition, or by prolongation of the overall period for which respiratory viruses circulate in sequence,’ it said.

Study author Professor Adam Finn who is director of the Bristol Vaccine Centre said: ‘What is really surprising from our results is just how much other non-Covid respiratory infections there was during this time.

‘Other infections clearly didn’t just disappear and despite significant public health measures, including both vaccination and non-pharmaceutical intervention such as masks, our findings show there was still a high incidence of non-Covid-19 disease causing hospitalisations.’

Co-author Dr Catherine Hyams, a respiratory doctor and principal investigator for the study said: ‘Our results really highlight not only the huge burden of respiratory infection on the NHS and other healthcare systems, but also how bad things may get this winter.

‘It is therefore essential that appropriate healthcare planning and resource allocation is undertaken to care for patients with respiratory conditions, in addition to implementation of public health measures to reduce respiratory disease burden and improve patient outcomes.’


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