Early spike in flu cases is recorded after a month of miserable weather

Flu is circulating at high levels earlier than normal this winter – and November’s dismal wet weather is partly to blame.

Figures for the week ending December 1 show 114 patients with confirmed flu were hospitalised and four admitted to intensive care.

Dr Cillian de Gascun, director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory in UCD, said: “It’s possible that people stayed in more during November in light of the very wet weather.

“To clarify, I am not suggesting that’s the cause of the early flu season. I’m surprised if it did not contribute to it in some degree.”

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He pointed out that people congregate more frequently at this time of year, which facilitates transmission of the flu virus.

Spread

“There are also factors such as humidity that affect the capability of the flu virus to survive and transmit.”

Overall, 186 confirmed cases of the flu have led to patients being hospitalised this winter and the increased spread is happening earlier.

Dr de Gascun said that “ultimately the virus needs a susceptible population, and the virus we have seen this season so far has not been prevalent since 2014”.

It means there is a large number of people who would not have encountered this virus before.

The main strain of the flu virus which is circulating is A (H3N2) which was also the dominant strain in Australia, causing the most illness in the southern hemisphere during its winter.

The flu season also started early in Australia this year.

It is still very early to draw conclusions for Ireland, and the most recent figures up to December 1 showed the threshold that indicates a particular level of intensity had not been crossed.

Also, there have been no reported deaths from flu so far.

An early peak may be good news for hospitals trying to control the trolley crisis. It would mean the spike – which can happen after Christmas and in January, at a time when patient attendances also rise – may not be as severe.

The highest rate of flu infection has been reported in the under-fives and the over-65s, although this trend is not unusual.

Counties in the midwest and north east appear to be worst affected so far.

There has been one outbreak of flu reported in a hospital, which occurs when one patient passed the virus on to another.

Two other outbreaks were also reported in nursing homes, one public and the other private.

Apart from the common cold, children are also being affected by the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which has caused the main children’s hospitals in Dublin to cancel most non-emergency surgery to free up beds.

At-risk groups are urged to get the flu vaccine.

Fatal

It comes as a European study from 2009 to 2017 showed that of 13,368 cases of flu, some 2,806 (21pc) were fatal.

Cancer, human immunodeficiency virus infection, heart, kidney and liver disease were among the conditions associated with fatalities.

The risk of death was lower for patients with chronic lung disease and for pregnant women.

The study, published in the journal ‘Open Forum Infectious Diseases’, re-emphasises the importance of preventing flu in the elderly and tailoring strategies to risk groups with underlying medical conditions.

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