A leading virologist has said there has been no major outbreak of Australian flu in the UK and its threat is obscuring the real problem facing the NHS, which is underfunding.
Concerns have been raised that an epidemic that hit New Zealand and Australiaduring the southern hemisphere’s winter could now be affecting the UK, after a sharp rise in flu-related hospitalisations and deaths.
The latest official figures showed that the number of hospitalisations in England almost tripled in a week from 2.33 to 6.82 per 100,000 of the population. There were also 24 flu-related deaths in the last week of 2017, matching the toll from the start of winter up to that week. Influenza-related deaths and hospitalisations are running at double the rate of last year.
Public Health England (PHE) has said spikes can happen at different times and described the figures as “in keeping with previous years”.
John Oxford, an emeritus professor of virology at the University of London, previously urged the UK to be “pre-armed” against Australian flu. But Oxford, who has contributed to more than 300 papers on influenza viruses, said it was a mistake to attribute the NHS’s current problems to the Australian variant.
“I don’t get the impression that anything drastic is going on [with respect to flu],” he said. “The problem is there is a lack of investment, there are not enough doctors or nurses, and politicians are trying to blame the situation on influenza. I don’t see it causing all that many problems [at present]. What’s going to happen in the next few weeks is another case. At this moment in time there are no signs it is a great epidemic.”
Explaining his view that the impact of the Australian flu had been overstated, Oxford pointed out that the official figures showed cases were split between different strains.
He was more positive about the impact of the vaccination programme. There has been greater uptake of flu jabs this winter among over-65s, young children and pregnant women, and also among health workers with direct patient contact, although two out of five of this group had not had it by the end of November.
That prompted Sir Bruce Keogh, the national medical director of NHS England, to suggest there should be a discussion for next year about mandatory jabs for frontline NHS staff. He also surged NHS staff who had not yet received the flu jab this winter to ensure they did so.
Nick Phin, interim deputy director for PHE’s National Infection Service, said the recent increase in flu cases was “to be expected as the season progresses, and while no two flu seasons are the same, the numbers are in keeping with previous years”.
He said: “We are currently seeing a mix of flu types, including flu B and the A(H3N2) strain that circulated last winter in the UK and then in Australia. We see this H3N2 subtype in many flu seasons and the circulating flu strains match those in the current flu vaccines, meaning they are still the best defence we have against the virus.
“As in past flu seasons, the chief medical officer has authorised the use of antivirals for treating flu-like illnesses. We will continue to actively monitor flu activity and we are working closely with NHS England to support their work putting measures in place to manage potential increases in local and national flu activity.”
He urged people to get vaccinated, especially those in at-risk groups.