England’s top doctors have urged people to protect themselves and their families from flu over the coming week amid warnings that new cases may peak over the busy Christmas period.
Hundreds of thousands could see their holiday plans turn to misery if flu levels rise as expected in late December and early January, experts have warned.
Doctors say the flu season has started early this year, with GP consultations for flu-like illness up by a quarter to nearly 7,500 visits in the week ending December 8, and some schools and care homes also reporting suspected outbreaks.
Experts are warning anyone who hasn’t had the vaccine to get immunised, particularly children who can spread the virus from schools and nurseries to family members even if they don’t succumb to symptoms themselves.
Those aged over 65, young children, pregnant women or those who have underlying medical conditions are particularly vulnerable to complications requiring hospital care.
Professor Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director, said: ‘Whether it’s missing out on your Christmas dinner, the Boxing Day match or a New Year’s party, nobody wants to be laid low by flu while the festivities are in full swing.
‘It’s good to see that more people over the age of 65 have already got their jab. For older people and those with underlying health conditions, getting flu is particularly bad news because it can lead to really serious conditions like pneumonia and bronchitis, which can mean a lengthy stay in hospital.
‘And we know that children are ‘super spreaders’ of flu, particularly around the holiday season when they’re more likely to see elderly relatives.
‘So our message is simple: the flu season is here, get your jab now. It might be the difference between a Christmas to remember, and one to forget.’
A spokesman for PHE said, due to delays in vaccine delivery from the manufacturer, vaccine uptake among two-three-year-olds is lagging behind previous seasons; as of the end of week 8 December, 28% of two-three-year-olds had received the vaccine.
The delays have now been resolved and PHE and NHS are urging parents to contact their GP without delay.
Some schools programmes will not take place until very early January, so PHE is also advising parents of at-risk children who missed their school session or in situations where the school programme is due in January, not to wait, and to contact their GP today to arrange an appointment to get protected.
Professor Yvonne Doyle, PHE medical director, said: ‘No one wants to see their children suffering with flu – far from a common cold, flu can have serious consequences for young children and those with underlying medical conditions.
‘There’s still a week before Christmas, parents of two-three-year-olds or those with underlying medical conditions should not delay, get your children vaccinated as soon as possible.
‘To reduce the risk of spreading flu, use tissues to trap germs when you cough or sneeze, wash your hands often with warm water and soap, and bin used tissues as quickly as possible. Catch it. Bin it. Kill it.’
The health service in England has prepared for its largest-ever flu protection drive to help keep people well and ease pressure on urgent care services over the colder months.
The number of people eligible, ranging from toddlers to pensioners, has topped 25 million.
Some of those who missed out last year went on to catch the virus in the 2018/19 season and needed NHS treatment as a result, with high numbers of hospital and intensive care admissions for flu.
Respiratory problems were the single most common cause of a trip to A&E for the over-65s in December 2018, closely followed by cardiac conditions, which can also be made worse by a dose of flu.
For most people, flu will pass within a few days with care at home – tips are available here. But where people have concerns about themselves or their loved ones, they can use the free NHS 111 phone or online service to get advice on the best course of action.
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