Record levels of flu have caused the death of two people this winter and left 42 others seriously ill in intensive care units, it emerged yesterday.
Rates of flu doubled in a week and are now higher than during last winter's peak, striking down down 9,180 people around the country. Most are suffering from swine flu but other strains are also affecting all age groups.
The first victims to die this winter from flu are a man in the east of the country and a woman in the west. One died of swine flu and the other, who was over 65, was infected with influenza B.
Both had underlying illnesses but post-mortem examinations revealed that flu contributed to their deaths.
There have been 393 people hospitalised so far this winter, a jump of nearly 279 on last year. Of these, 72 were admitted to intensive care and at least 42 are continuing to be treated for serious complications.
The rate of flu-like illness jumped to 204 per 100,000 compared to 114 per 100,000 the previous week -- and it will rise even further in the coming weeks.
Around one in seven calls to GPs in the evenings and weekends are from patients asking for treatment for flu-like illness.
Dr Derval Igoe, from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, said the patients who are hospitalised are mainly young adults and children. The are mainly suffering from swine flu but around one in 10 have influenza B.
Dr Igoe said 37 of the patients in intensive care are adults and five are children.
The sickest people are mainly aged 45-64 years and the majority have underlying illnesses such as respiratory disease, heart problems and also conditions like pregnancy and diabetes.
However, around 30pc of those hospitalised are "healthy" with no pre-existing illness highlighting how swine flu in particular can pose a threat not just to those in the 'at risk' groups.
Dr Igoe said that during a normal winter around 300 to 400 people die from flu although it is not always recorded on their death certificates.
Asked about the ability of hospitals to cope with such a level of patients needing intensive care, chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said they had been told to open additional beds where needed.
He admitted that A&E overcrowding left patients at risk of cross-infection and said hospital should move patients from trolleys in emergency units to wards to reduce risk.
Dr Kevin Kelleher, head of health protection in the HSE said GPs will be given additional stocks of last year's swine flu vaccine by today and more seasonal flu vaccine -- which also protects against other strains -- will be delivered in the next week or two.
People in high-risk groups with symptoms are advised to contact their GP.