This year’s flu season is likely to be severe and strike early, Government public health experts have warned.
The UK could also face a ‘twindemic’ of Covid and flu infections this winter, with both infections expected to circle widely, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) warned.
Reduced social mixing during the Covid-19 pandemic has led to lower levels of natural immunity to the flu this year, especially amongst children below the age of five, making the population especially susceptible to infection, it said.
Under the flu vaccination enhanced service, GP practices are required to do call and recall for children aged 2 and 3 years old; those aged 50 and over; and those aged 6 months to 50 years in a clinical at-risk group, said technical guidance published this week.
They are also ‘strongly encouraged’ to invite the 50- 64 year old cohorts that do not fall into the at risk category for vaccination once eligible.
Meanwhile, UKHSA warned that the H3N2 influenza subtype is currently the most widely circulating worldwide and has already caused early waves of infection in southern hemisphere countries like Australia.
Coupled with expected growing levels of Covid-19 in circulation, NHS director for vaccinations and screening Steve Russell said this winter ‘could be the first time we see the effects of the so-called twindemic’ of flu and Covid-19.
With 33 million people offered a flu jab and 26 million offered an autumn Covid booster vaccination this year, Mr Russell urged those eligible to ‘come forward for vaccines in order to protect themselves and those around them’.
Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical advisor at UKHSA, warned the flu H3N2 subtype ‘can cause particularly severe illness’, and in combination with widely circulating Covid variants this ‘poses a serious risk to our health’.
The last time H3N2 was dominant in the UK, in 2017-18, there were 41,730 flu-related hospital admissions in England and approximately 22,000 excess deaths.
However, early evidence from Australia suggests that current flu vaccines are well matched to the current subtypes in circulation and can provide effective protection against severe illness.
Dr Hopkins added: ‘Most eligible groups have been selected because they are at higher risk of severe illness. Younger children are unlikely to have built up any natural immunity to flu and therefore it is particularly important they take the nasal spray vaccine this year.’
A version of this article was first published by Pulse’s sister title Nursing in Practice