Flu claims first victims of winter as three patients die and virus begins to spread

Flu has claimed its first victims this winter with three deaths from the virus, including two fatalities last week.

The tragic winter illness toll comes as the HSE reported flu was now “actively circulating in the community”.

All of the deaths this winter have occurred in people aged 65 and older, according to the disease watchdog, the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC).

Flu outbreaks occur where the virus has been passed on from one infected person to another which has happened in hospitals and nursing homes.

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There were 143 patients hospitalised with two admitted to intensive care units.

The flu season has begun at least four to five weeks earlier than normal.

Dr John Cuddihy, head of HPSC, said the flu-like illness rate for the week ending December 8 was 37.5 cases per 100,000 population which is above the baseline threshold of 18.1.

This signals that flu is circulating widely and at-risk groups are again reminded to get the seasonal jab.

Hospitalisations with flu were highest in children under five and those aged 65 and older.

The wet weather over recent weeks is believed to have contributed to the spread of the virus as more people congregate indoors, increasing the chance of its being passed on.

The east of the country is most affected and the midlands has so far escaped the worst.

The dominant virus is the A (H3N2) strain while swine flu and influenza B is also circulating.

Dr Cuddihy said: “The symptoms of influenza usually develop over a matter of a few hours and include a high temperature, sore muscles, dry cough, headache and sore throat.

“This is different from the common cold, which tends to come on more gradually and usually includes a runny nose and a normal temperature.

“The flu vaccine is a safe and effective prevention measure against flu and it is provided free of charge for people in at-risk groups.

“These include everyone aged 65 years and over, pregnant women, anyone over six months of age with a long-term illness requiring regular medical follow-up such as chronic lung disease, chronic heart disease, diabetes, cancer or those with lower immunity due to disease or treatment,” Dr Cuddihy said.

“The vaccine is also recommended for all healthcare workers to protect themselves and those they care for.”

He said anyone who catches flu should stay at home, rest, drink plenty of fluids and use over-the-counter remedies like paracetamol to ease symptoms.

Anyone in one of the at-risk groups who develops flu symptoms or anyone who is not in an at-risk group, but whose flu symptoms are severe or getting worse, should contact their GP.

Flu is set to have a greater impact on the country’s overcrowded hospital A&E departments.

The number of patients attending A&E rose again last week and they are seeing more people aged over 75 than last winter.

The target is to have all over-75s attending A&Es in a bed or discharged within nine hours, but this is only happening in half of the cases.

There were 447 patients on trolleys in A&E units yesterday – 39.7pc higher than last year.

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