Doctors warn elderly face threat from stronger flu strain
Elderly people could face a greater threat from this winter's flu outbreak, a leading expert warned yesterday.
This is because they will have less ability to fight the strain of flu that could be the dominant form of the virus circulating here in the coming months, said Dr Darina O'Flanagan, director of the Health Protection Surveillance Centre of Ireland.
She was commenting after experts in the UK predicted this strain of Influenza A, known as H3N2, could make a strong comeback after the last two winters when it was overshadowed by swine flu.
It was circulating here for the past two winters, but it was less of a threat to elderly people because swine flu was more prevalent and this mostly affected younger people.
"Flu is unpredictable and you can't guarantee how it is going to be this winter. The main message is that it is important for at-risk groups to be vaccinated," she added.
"If it is the case that H3N2 makes a strong comeback this season, then the elderly may not have as mild a time as they had for the last two years."
Health authorities usually look to the recent Australian winter to indicate how bad the flu season will be here.
"Some areas in Australia had a mild outbreak and it was moderate in others.
"It was not as severe as what they experienced in the swine flu pandemic during the 2009-2010 winter, but more severe than previous seasons."
Another strain that could be more dominant is Influenza B, which is now appearing to be more aggressive than originally thought.
Dr O'Flanagan said the elderly were more at risk if they caught the flu because they tended to be already suffering from other illnesses.
There were 38 flu deaths confirmed by laboratory tests last winter compared with 29 during the previous season's swine flu pandemic.
However, Dr O'Flanagan pointed out that the true number of flu deaths can be 300 to 400 because most people who die as a result of the virus are not subject to this kind of laboratory test.
"When people get the flu their immunity is knocked and they often suffer complications such as heart attack, stroke, pneumonia or an exacerbation of chronic bronchitis.
"They go into hospital with these illnesses and the respiratory tract infection they had two weeks previously is forgotten.
"People concentrate on their heart attack and stroke so they are not recorded as flu deaths," she pointed out.