The UK could be in store for a severe flu season after Australia – which usually serves as a predictor for the northern hemisphere – suffered its worst in five years.
The figures already show that there are 10 times more people hospitalized with the flu than at the same time last year.
NHS leaders have warned the country faces a “tripledemic” threat of COVID, flu and record demand for emergency and emergency services amid pressures on staff.
What are the symptoms of the flu?
Flu symptoms include a high temperature, headache, fatigue, and a dry, chest-like cough, as well as cold-like symptoms such as a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, and sore throat.
Unlike the common cold, symptoms tend to come on more suddenly, are more severe, and last longer.
How Australia’s flu cases are informing the northern hemisphere
Experts typically monitor flu cases over the winter in Australia and New Zealand to inform forecasts of the impact the virus will have when winter hits the UK.
This year Australia has seen a rapid rise in flu cases, which started earlier than usual and reached record numbers.
The majority of flu cases in Australia were due to influenza A, according to the Australian Department of Health, which is known to cause more severe outbreaks.
New Zealand has also had its highest flu rates in the past two years.
Hospital flu cases are up 10x from last year, NHS England data shows
NHS leaders are more concerned about this winter than any previous
Relaxation of COVID measures leads to flu spike
According to a Lancet article, the sharp rise in infections is likely due to a relaxation of measures put in place to combat COVID-19, such as isolation, social distancing and the wearing of masks.
“The Australian data provide a warning for an earlier and more severe influenza season in the northern hemisphere,” the researchers said.
The authors also said that influenza had not circulated as much in the past two years, so immunity to circulating viruses was likely significantly lower than in previous years.
Moreover, children under two years of age – who are most at risk of severe illness, as well as pregnant women – are unlikely to have ever been exposed to the flu.
The UK Health Safety Agency said it was particularly concerned about pregnant women and toddlers.
Falling vaccination rates
The authors noted that flu vaccination rates had declined in Australia and the UK, including among pregnant women and children, who are most at risk of severe disease.
They also said vaccination rates had dropped among healthcare workers in the UK, from 77% in 2020-21 to 61% in 2021-22, when the vaccine was offered with the COVID-19 booster. .
They said safety concerns and distrust of coronavirus vaccines could also have led to flu vaccine hesitancy.
Click to subscribe to Sky News Daily wherever you get your podcasts
The decision made earlier this year to remove people aged 50 to 54 and 11 to 15 from the groups eligible for the flu vaccine should be reconsidered, they added.
Children are primarily responsible for transmitting influenza and have Australia’s highest infection rates.
The researchers said that to be effective, vaccination campaigns must start early and address disparities in the vaccination of groups at high risk of infection, such as healthcare workers and children.
If the UK has a flu season similar to that seen in Australia, it will have to deal with two respiratory viruses circulating at high levels at the same time – putting even more pressure on the already stretched NHS.