Exclusive: flu cases 13-times higher than previous year as experts advise people to wear face masks again

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The UKHSA said that “young children are particularly vulnerable to becoming very poorly from flu,” with hospitalisation rates among children under five jump up by 70%.

People should consider wearing face masks in crowded places as flu cases across the UK are more than 10 times higher than the previous year, experts have said.

Almost one in every 12 people were estimated to have flu - 8.2% of the population - in the week to 20 November. That’s a whopping 13-times greater than the previous year, when Omicron was spreading across the UK like wildfire, the UKHSA estimates. This winter the country will be hit by the triple threat of influenza, respiratory illnesses and Covid.

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Experts have said it was “inevitable” that there would be a surge of infections in the first winter without Covid restrictions, but warned that the UK should be “concerned” after Australia and New Zealand both experienced severe flu outbreaks. The severity of the flu season in the southern hemisphere is usually a good indicator for what we should expect in the UK.

Martin Michaelis, professor of molecular medicine at the University of Kent, explained it was “probably inevitable that the flu would come back at some point after the removal of all Covid prevention measures”. These did not only suppress the spread of coronavirus, but also other respiratory illnesses such as flu, he explained.

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During the Covid pandemic, there were only very few flu cases, which may mean that there is “less immune protection in the population due to reduced exposure”. This may in particular affect young children, who will encounter the flu for the first time, he added.

The highest flu positivity rate currently is among five to 14-year-olds, at 18%, followed by 15 to 44-year-olds at 15.8%.

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Dr Conall Watson, consultant epidemiologist at UKHSA, explained: “Young children are particularly vulnerable to becoming very poorly from flu. For the third week running we have seen hospitalisation rates among children under five jump up, with a 70% increase in just the last week. Over 200 children were hospitalised because of flu in one week.

“Two and three-year-olds can get protection with a free nasal spray vaccine from the NHS. Nobody wants their child to get sick so I strongly urge parents to book the vaccine at their GP surgery as soon as possible.”

Flu vaccine uptake is comparable to the previous winterFlu vaccine uptake is comparable to the previous winter
Flu vaccine uptake is comparable to the previous winter | Mark Hall/NationalWorld

Flu vaccine uptake is comparable to the previous winter, however, primary school children are being jabbed at a much higher rate. They are up 7% on the previous year and 3% higher than the previous record - 2018-19. More than seven out of 10 over 65-year-olds have also received their flu vaccine.

Overall hospital admission rates for flu have increased by 66% in the last week. The rate of hospital admission rates per 100,000 last week was 2.4, during the same week last year it was 0.1.

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Prof Michaelis said people should consider wearing face masks in crowded, poorly ventilated indoor spaces to help reduce the triple threat of respiratory illnesses including flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and Covid. This will take the burden off the NHS.

Like the spread of flu, the spread of RSV has also been largely suppressed during the Covid pandemic so again, there’s more young children that are susceptible to RSV than in the past.

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