Parents in the UK have been urged to take up an offer of flu nasal spray for their children after a ‘large number’ of youngsters needed hospital treatment after catching the flu in Australia.
Dr Dame Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, said it was difficult to predict the severity of flu and Covid-19 spikes this winter in the UK, but she referenced to flu season in Australia where there were high case rates and hospitalizations for flu among young people.
It comes as data released by the UKHSA appears to suggest flu season has arrived early in England.
Asked if the NHS should expect a difficult winter, Dame Jenny told a Royal Society of Medicine webinar on Covid-19: ‘The difficult thing is that we can’t expect anything, we should be worried about that and I think that’s exactly what we should be.
“The word ‘twindemic’ is not a guaranteed position for this winter, but it is a position that we should reasonably plan for.
“In Australia what they saw was an H3N2 (flu) wave, it happened earlier in the season than it normally would… a few months earlier.
“It left a large number of children in hospital and there were very high rates among children.
“Of course, many of these young children have not had previous exposure during times when there would be normal socialization.”
She added: “But we cannot predict the exact timing – it could be entirely possible that both (flu and Covid) are increasing at the same time; we might have one peak followed by another, which would put significant pressure on health services; and we might see slightly unusual patterns – for example in young children, when we tend to think of the flu mainly affecting older people.
Dame Jenny continued: “The two areas I would favour…partly because of this account of what happened in Australia during their winter time, is making sure young children in nursery and preschool , and some of the younger high school ages, are showing up for nasal flu shots as winter approaches.
“But what’s really important – the group that we never get to support to get vaccinated – is the middle-aged group with underlying conditions.”
Flu cases have increased across England, with more calls to NHS 111 and a slight increase in the number of people seeking help from their GP for flu-like symptoms, according to data published by the UKHSA last week.
The UKHSA has urged everyone who is eligible to get a flu shot, saying Covid-19 restrictions over the past two winters mean people have little natural immunity.
The latest data suggests that hospitalizations and intensive admissions for respiratory illnesses are increasing fastest among children under five, although overall flu levels are still at a relatively low level, meaning it is difficult to predict the magnitude of the wave.
Around 33 million people in England are eligible for a free flu shot this year, including all primary-aged children and some secondary-aged children, who will be offered the nasal spray.
People eligible for the flu vaccine are: people aged 50 and over; people aged six months to 49 years with a specified health condition; secondary school-aged children focusing on years 7, 8 and 9 with any remaining vaccine offered at years 10 and 11; children of primary school age; pregnant women; those of care homes, front-line health and social service personnel; caregivers and household contacts of people with weakened immune systems.
General practitioners are also inviting children aged two and three (as of August 31) to be vaccinated by nasal spray.
The latest data suggests that 12-13% of two- and three-year-olds have so far accepted the offer of a nasal flu spray.
Data on children in school comes out once a month and will be released on Thursday.