UK flu may show early hints of plateau

Jan 13, 2011 (CIDRAP News) – British health officials said today that flu indicators show some early signs of a plateau, but they warned that the latest surveillance update covers a time when many schools and doctors offices were closed for the holidays.

England's Health Protection Agency (HPA) said in a press release that it has confirmed 62 more flu deaths, raising the total to 112 since the flu season began in October. It said many of newest deaths occurred in December, but because of a holiday backlog are just being reported now.

Dr John Watson, head of the HPA respiratory disease department, said in the press release, "Flu is still circulating in the community and the message remains that those people in an at-risk group should have their seasonal flu vaccine as soon as possible as this is the best way to protect themselves from flu this winter."

The agency said the 2009 H1N1 virus and influenza B are still the predominant strains in Britain, though a few H3N2 infections have been reported. Most (95) of the deaths were in patients who had H1N1 infections. In cases for which information was available, 63 of 81 patients were in a risk group for flu complications, and 40 of 47 had not received the seasonal flu vaccine.

Earlier this week the HPA warned clinicians to be vigilant for bacterial co-infections in patients with severe flu infections. "Although we expect to see more cases of these bacterial infections during winter months the HPA is monitoring the situation closely and currently investigating whether coinfection with flu is contributing to these increases," Watson said.

On a Web site called Winterwatch that updates the public on how well the UK's National Health Service (NHS) is coping with increased demands of flu and other diseases that circulate in the winter, Dr Dame Sally Davies, interim chef medical officer for the country's Department of Health, warned today that although outdoor temperatures have turned milder, the public should keep observing flu-prevention practices. She also said people in risk groups should get vaccinated.

The site reported that as of today, 661 patients with confirmed or suspected flu are hospitalized in NHS critical beds, accounting for 19% of NHS's available capacity. It said some hospital beds have been closed to admissions because of infection control procedures related to patients with norovirus symptoms.

Rising caseloads in Canada
In flu developments elsewhere, Canadian hospitals are reporting that rising H3N2 flu activity is putting pressure on emergency departments and facilities in some provinces, including parts of Ontario, Manitoba, and Quebec, the Toronto Globe and Mail reported yesterday.

About 700 flu cases have been confirmed in the Toronto area, which is well above the 100 cases typically confirmed in the area during a typical flu season, the Globe and Mail reported.

Dr James Downey, an infection control officer at Toronto East General Hospital, told the paper, "A colleague of mine and some others around here are starting to call this whole problem a flunami, which it probably is, based on the numbers of cases we're seeing." He added that some hospitals in Toronto and Winnipeg have had to cancel elective surgeries to handle the surge in flu cases.

Officials for the Middlesex-London Health Unit in Ontario have recorded eight outbreaks in long-term care facilities, which associate medical officer of health Bryna Warshawsky told the Globe and Mail is the worst she has seen in 25 flu seasons.

See also:

Jan 13 HPA press release

Jan 12 Globe and Mail story

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