England’s top doctor urges people to protect themselves and their families from flu over the coming week amid warnings that new cases may peak over the busy Christmas period.
People are being urged to get their flu jab as there is an increased risk of flu while the country celebrates Christmas, Hanukah and the New Year.
Hundreds of thousands could see their holiday plans turn to misery if flu levels rise as expected in late December and early January.
The latest surveillance data from Public Health England (PHE) shows that GP consultations for Influenza-like Illness have risen by 24% from week 48 to week 49.
Current evidence shows that vaccinations available this year are well-matched to the main strain of flu circulating, so getting your jab – or nasal spray for children – offers the best possible chance of avoiding missing out on festivities.
NHS-commissioned school vaccination teams, maternity services, general practices and local pharmacies have all been working hard since the autumn to deliver vaccines to primary school-aged children, two and three-year olds, those with underlying health conditions, pregnant women and people aged 65 years and over.
But concerns remain for those who have yet to protect themselves or their children, who can spread the virus from schools and nurseries to family members even if they don’t succumb to symptoms themselves.
Almost seven and a half million eligible children and adults missed out on their free NHS vaccination last year.
Flu can take its toll on anyone, so anyone can benefit from getting a jab, but those aged over 65, young children, pregnant women or those who have underlying medical conditions are particularly vulnerable to complications requiring hospital care.
NHS teams in GP surgeries, A&E departments and hospital wards are already seeing the number of people coming forward for treatment increase, with some schools and care homes also reporting suspected outbreaks.
Dr Geraldine Linehan, Medical Director of Commissioning, NHS England and NHS Improvement said: “Whether it’s missing out on your Christmas dinner, the Boxing Day match or a New Year’s party, nobody wants to be laid low by flu while the festivities are in full swing.
“It’s good to see that more people over the age of 65 have already got their jab. For older people and those with underlying health conditions, getting flu is particularly bad news because it can lead to really serious conditions like pneumonia and bronchitis, which can mean a lengthy stay in hospital.
“The winter flu season has started early in the UK and it is important that everyone who is eligible gets the flu jab from their GP or pharmacist. The vaccine is the best defence against flu whilst practising sensible hygiene can reduce the spread of flu.
“We know that children are ‘super spreaders’ of flu, particularly around the holiday season when they’re more likely to see elderly relatives.
“So our message is simple: the flu season is here, get your jab now. It might be the difference between a Christmas to remember, and one to forget.”
Due to delays in vaccine delivery from the manufacturer, vaccine uptake among 2-3 year olds is lagging behind previous seasons; as of the end of week 8 December, 28% of 2-3 year olds had received the vaccine.
The delays have now been resolved and PHE and NHS are urging parents of 2-3 year olds to contact their GP without delay.
Children with an underlying health condition can be vaccinated by their GP, and other children are vaccinated through the schools vaccination programme or at their local vaccination centre.
The health service in England has prepared for its largest ever flu protection drive to help keep people well and ease pressure on urgent care services over the colder months.
The number of people eligible – ranging from toddlers to pensioners – has topped 25 million.
Some of those who missed out last year went on to catch the virus in the 2018/19 season and needed NHS treatment as a result, with high numbers of hospital and intensive care admissions for flu.
Respiratory problems were the single most common cause of a trip to A&E for the over-65s in December 2018, closely followed by cardiac conditions, which can also be made worse by a dose of flu.
For most people, flu will pass within a few days with care at home – tips are available on the NHS.uk website. But where people have concerns about themselves or their loved ones, they can use the free NHS 111 phone or online service to get advice on the best course of action.
Frontline NHS healthcare workers, as well as care home and home care teams, are also being urged to take up free vaccinations offered through their employers, so that they reduce the risk of passing on an infection to their vulnerable patients.