If you’ve been feeling under the weather for the last few months or feel you’ve lurched from illness to illness since before Christmas, you’re not alone. Figures released by the NHS last week demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that the 2017-2018 winter flu season is the worst for seven years. It’s putting a strain on health services and people calling in sick to work is higher than normal.
The Facts and Statistics
No part of the UK is untouched with GP surgeries reporting an average of four times the normal number of visits for winter viruses. Wales is hit worst with 64.9 cases in every 100,000. The last time the figures were this high was in 2010-11 during the second Swine Flu outbreak.
Hospitals are also reporting “very high” admission rates than would be normal, adding to the strain already placed on the NHS throughout 2017. At the same time last year, admissions were between 2 and 2.5 whereas this winter season, the rate is over 8 on the scale. However, health chiefs have been quick to warn against assuming the much-vaunted Aussie Flu is to blame. It is not causing the most serious winter bug and associated illnesses. This came in a statement released by Public Health England in early January.
There are presently four strains of flu doing the rounds, one of which is Aussie Flu, but most unusually is the appearance of something called a B Strain. This is responsible for around half of all flu-related hospital visits.
“Not an Epidemic”
Despite that flu and winter bugs are so widespread this year, health chiefs have been keen to point out how what is happening right now is not an epidemic. These are declared when a disease becomes widespread. It requires as few as 15 people in every 100,000 to be officially labelled an epidemic. It also requires a single condition; that has not happened here as there are at least four different strains of flu and winter bug presently going around.
There are signs that it is peaking at present with some health authorities saying the strain is beginning to ease on GP surgeries and hospitals. That will come as little relief to those who are taking time off through illness or caring for sick relatives. There have been over 670 admissions as of the end of January 2018 and 85 deaths confirmed as a result of various influenza strains.
What is Aussie Flu?
The media broke with the story in late autumn about a new strain which they called “Aussie Flu”, suggesting the condition originated in Australia. In the southern hemisphere, seasons are reversed. Winter runs from late June until September and summer from late December until late March. Late last year, it was confirmed that the entire hemisphere experienced its worst ever flu season. Australia was hit particularly hard by a strain known as H3N2 which is fairly common but known as a resilient and difficult to control bug. Australia’s flu season caught the attention in the northern hemisphere because it’s the largest and most populous of a small number of developed countries in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s highly unlikely it originated there, but due to news media, we heard about it more.
It’s likely to have come from somewhere in the sub-tropical regions. The equator and the tropics do not have traditional seasons as we do and therefore don’t experience flu epidemics in the same way. Why that is the case is unclear, but the climate is likely the explaining factor. Warmth and humidity combat such bugs and stifle their ability to spread.