Put away those hankies: Number of cases of flu to hit record LOW
By Jane Bunce
Last updated at 4:13 PM on 18th February 2012
Just a year after outbreaks of swine flu killed more than 500 people, the country is having a much-needed reprieve from the dreaded winter curse.
The Health Protection Agency (HPA), which monitors outbreaks of influenza during the winter months, has reported a massive drop in seasonal flu compared to previous years.
If the trend continues for the rest of the season, the UK will have experienced its lowest ever level of winter flu infections.
In its last weekly report, the agency said rates of people visiting their GPs with flu-like symptoms this winter had fallen to just 15.6 per cent per 100,000 people in England – around half the rate for normal seasonal activity.
The rates in Wales and Scotland were even lower, at 9.4 per cent and 13.6 per cent respectively, although Northern Ireland was running at 25.9 per cent.
Although rates had increased slightly since the previous week, they ‘remained low’, the HPA said. Levels in December and January were running at rates more associated with the summer months.
‘You can never predict what happens with flu – but we were surprised,’ an HPA spokesperson told The Independent.
The swine flu pandemic in 2009 claimed 474 people, while last winter 535 people succumbed. The outbreaks jammed intensive care units and led to a shortage of flu vaccine.
Experts have attributed this season’s low rates in part due to the better uptake of the flu jab among vulnerable people. Almost three-quarters of people in England aged 65 or over have received this year’s vaccine, while more than half of people deemed at risk due to other factors such as illness have been vaccinated.
The flu can give rise to life-threatening complications such as bronchitis and pneumonia, particularly in the elderly, asthmatics and others in poor health.
However the drop has been seen mainly in children under the age of five, who do not usually receive the vaccine. Doctors believe this improvement is due to better living conditions.
Douglas Fleming, head of the Royal College of General Practitioners’ flu-monitoring service, said: ‘The rates of nearly all respiratory infections are falling. There is much less smog, there is far less smoking and there is better hygiene. One of the greatest benefits of central heating may have been not the warmth it brings but the constant hot water.’
Influenza occurs most often in winter and usually peaks between December and March in the UK and the rest of the northern hemisphere.
Past flu pandemics have caused disaster on a global scale. The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic killed up to 40 million people, more than the number who died in the First World War.