22 December 2022

Rising flu admissions sparks warning of more severe season than pre-pandemic

22 December 2022

The number of patients in hospital with flu in England has “skyrocketed” according to new data, sparking warnings that this season could be more severe than in pre-pandemic years.

An average of 1,939 people with flu were in hospital each day last week, up 67% on 1,162 the previous week, according to NHS England.

There has also been a surge in the number of flu patients in critical care beds, with the daily average standing at 149 last week, up 72% from 87 the previous week.

At the equivalent point last year the NHS had only two flu patients a day in critical care and 32 in general beds.

The rate of flu admissions currently stands at 8.3 per 100,000 people, up week-on-week from 6.8 per 100,000 and a level not seen since the 2017-18 season.

Flu admissions continue to be highest among over-85s, at 42.0 per 100,000 people, and children aged four and under, at 19.4 per 100,000, according to the latest data from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).

All children aged two and three are eligible for a flu nasal spray vaccine which is being offered by local GPs.

But only 38.8% of two-year-olds have received the vaccine so far, along with 40.9% of three-year-olds, well below the take-up reached at this point in previous winters.

This flu season is looking far more severe compared to recent years before the pandemic

Saffron Cordery, interim chief executive at NHS Providers, said: “Trust leaders are expecting this Christmas to be one of their darkest to date. As they work hard to mitigate the impact of ongoing strike action, they are also having to contend with an incredibly long list of other serious challenges.

“After very few flu cases in the last two years, in part due to social distancing during the pandemic, this flu season is looking far more severe compared to recent years before the pandemic.

“The surge in flu has impacted bed occupancy, which continues to be above levels considered safe.

“More patients are also staying longer in hospital due to greater severity of illness and delayed discharges, which remain a real concern and puts a massive strain on the entire health and care system, including community care and social services.”

Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical advisor at the UKHSA, said that as well as those eligible getting vaccinated, to stop infections spreading people should try to stay at home if they feel unwell and wear face coverings in enclosed spaces.

She added: “Hospitalisations have increased dramatically in those aged 75 and over in the past week, with admissions among children under five remaining high.

“ICU admissions have also increased this week.

“NHS services are already under pressure so it’s more important than ever to get protected with the flu vaccine and help keep yourself out of hospital.”

Separate data shows there were 721,301 calls to NHS 111 services last week, up from 706,129 the week before.

NHS England said this was “near-record” level demand and “significantly” more than usual for this time of year, up almost 60% from the 452,644 calls in the equivalent week in 2021.

This rise in demand is understood to be partly driven by parents concerned about symptoms of Strep A.

NHS England national medical director Professor Sir Stephen Powis urged those eligible to get their flu and Covid jabs.

He added: “As well as the impact of industrial action last week, it is clear that the NHS is facing enormous pressure ahead of Christmas with the number of flu cases in hospital and in intensive care rising week-on-week, on top of significant increases in staff sickness rates and near-record demand for services like 111.

“Despite this, NHS staff continue to deliver a significant amount for patients – dealing with near record 111 calls as well as continuing to make progress on Covid-19 backlogs.

“With more industrial action scheduled for next week, there will be disruption but we urge the public to continue to use services wisely by continuing to call 999 for life-threatening emergencies, use 111 online for other health conditions, and take sensible steps to keep yourself and others safe.

“The NHS has prepared for winter extensively with more beds, extra call handlers as well as the expansion of falls response services, control centres and respiratory hubs, but with flu hospitalisations and Covid cases on the rise, the best things you can do to protect yourself is to get vaccinated if you’re eligible.”

The most recent data from the UKHSA shows 21 children under 18 in England having died from invasive Strep A disease.

Strep A infections such as scarlet fever and impetigo are treated with antibiotics, with penicillin among the most commonly used.

The UKHSA said that between September 12 and December 18 there have been 27,486 notifications of scarlet fever compared to 3,287 at the same point in the year during the last comparably high season in 2017 to 2018.

But it added that cases in that season started to rise at a different point and in 2017 to 2018 there were 30,768 scarlet fever notifications overall across the year.

The agency also said that invasive strep A infections remained “rare”, with 126 cases in children aged one to four and 88 cases in children aged five to nine.

This compares to 194 and 117 cases respectively in the whole 2017 to 2018 season, UKHSA said.

Dr Colin Brown, deputy director at UKHSA, said: “I understand how this large rise in scarlet fever and ‘strep throat’ may be concerning to parents, however, the condition can be easily treated with antibiotics and it is very rare that a child will go on to become more seriously ill.

“NHS services are under huge pressure this winter, but please visit NHS.UK, contact 111 online or your GP surgery if your child has symptoms of scarlet fever or ‘strep throat’ so they can be assessed for treatment.”

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