Sunday 20 October 2019

Fears grow of imminent arrival of 'Aussie flu' threat to elderly

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Eilish O'Regan

Eilish O'Regan

Ireland is at risk of being hit by a new round of "Aussie flu" this winter which could particularly affect the elderly.

Public health officials are braced for a potentially difficult season following a particularly bad flu outbreak that gripped Australia.

More than 300,000 flu cases were recorded in Australia this year with the outbreak taking hold in March rather than May.

The flu season in this part of the world can mirror that of the Southern Hemisphere, although it is difficult to forecast at this stage.

One person has already been hospitalised here with the AH3N2 strain which caused the highest level of illness in Australia.

Health Minister Simon Harris and the HSE launched the winter flu vaccine campaign yesterday.

Dr John Cuddihy of the HSE said during a severe flu season there could be potentially 1,000 flu-related deaths.

Asked about the potential impact here of the flu strains which affected Australia, Dr Cillian de Gascun, director at the UCD National Virus Reference Laboratory, said it was too early to predict at this stage.

"Australia had very high levels of interseasonal influenza activity, with a particularly early start to their season.

"However, the clinical severity of the season was low and the impact was low to moderate," he said.

Clinical severity is measured by the number of patients with flu who are admitted to intensive care, and deaths attributed to the virus.

There were 89pc of the A strain and 11pc of the B virus recorded.

"They did report good vaccine effectiveness," he added.

A bad flu season here would put even more pressure on hospital overcrowding in the coming months and escalate the trolley crisis.

Three cases of flu have already been diagnosed and one person has been hospitalised with the illness.

The strain that is striking in Ireland so far is the H3N2 flu virus which was the main form of the infection in Australia.

However, the Health Protection Surveillance Centre said that flu levels here remain very low.

All regular-dose flu shots will this year be the quadrivalent vaccine, which protects against four strains of the virus as opposed to the three of previous years. The vaccine covers the strains which have been circulating in Australia.

Dr Cuddihy urged all at-risk groups to get vaccinated.

"Recent national uptake figures indicate that 68.5pc of people aged 65 and over who hold a medical card or GP visit card received the flu vaccine during the 2018-2019 flu season, a substantial increase on last year when the uptake rate was 57.6pc," he said.

"People need to remember that flu causes severe illness and death in Ireland every year.

"That is why those who are most vulnerable to the complications of flu need to get vaccinated. The flu vaccine is the best defence against flu.

"The vaccine reduces infection and associated illnesses and hospitalisation.

"Flu is very infectious and can cause potentially serious illnesses, especially for older people, those who have a chronic illness, those with weakened immune systems and pregnant women.

"Seasonal flu vaccine can be given at any stage of pregnancy and also protects the baby, " he added.

Irish Independent

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