Eligible people urged to get vaccinated as flu cases rise

This week’s UKHSA surveillance data shows the sharpest weekly increase in flu activity so far this winter, signalling flu season is officially underway

All those eligible for the flu vaccine are being urged to come forward as the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) published data showing a significant increase in the number of recorded flu cases.

The latest UKHSA data also shows there has been an increase in emergency department flu attendances and hospital admissions in the last week.

So far this year, flu vaccine uptake in eligible groups is similar to the last couple of years, although there is a particular need for pre-schoolers, pregnant women and those in the health and social care workforces to take up the offer.

From 4 to 10 December 2023, the UKHSA national influenza and COVID-19 surveillance report showed that:

  • there was a notable increase in influenza positivity to 5.6%, up from 2.4% in the previous week, based on data from Respiratory DataMart
  • primary care surveillance indicated a rise in influenza-like-illness (ILI) consultations to 5.3 per 100,000, compared to 4.6 per 100,000 in the previous week
  • influenza hospitalisations increased, including a rise in emergency department attendances across the country. There was also an uptick in intensive care unit (ICU) or high dependency unit (HDU) admissions, with 35 new admissions in week 49
  • weekly influenza vaccine uptake for the 2023 to 2024 season showed higher rates for those aged 2 years, comparable rates for those aged 3 years and lower rates for those aged 65 years and over, pregnant women, and those under 65 years in clinical risk groups compared to the equivalent week in the previous season (2022 to 2023)

Those aged 2 and 3 years are eligible for nasal spray flu vaccines, with parents and guardians also urged to book appointments to ensure the younger age group is protected.

With both flu and COVID-19 cases both circulating this winter, it is also vital all those eligible get both vaccines as soon as possible.

Due to the increase in levels of flu circulating in the community, UKHSA has recommended that it is now appropriate for antiviral medicines to be prescribed in primary care settings.

Those eligible for antivirals if they have flu include patients in clinical at-risk groups as well as any who are at risk of severe illness and complications from flu if not treated. This includes people in those groups who present with symptoms of flu and those who have been exposed to flu-like illnesses from someone they live with, including residents of care homes.

As has happened in flu seasons before the pandemic, following an UKHSA recommendation, the Chief Medical Officer together with the Chief Pharmaceutical Officer have issued an alert to the NHS notifying the healthcare system that antiviral medicines can now be prescribed and supplied for cases of community acquired influenza.

Dr Mary Ramsay, Director for Immunisation and Programmes at UKHSA, said:

"Flu levels are on the rise, so get your vaccine now to make sure that you are Winter Strong, and before pharmacies and surgeries begin to close for the Christmas period. Pregnant women, their unborn babies and those in clinical risk groups are at higher risk of complication from flu. Taking up both the flu and COVID-19 vaccines provides the best protection for both pregnant women and their baby, reducing the risk of severe complications, intensive care needs, stillbirth, and prematurity.

"If you are the parent of a child aged 2 or 3 years, don’t forget that they are also eligible for the flu vaccine and this can be booked via your GP – the nasal spray will help prevent hospitalisations, reduce the spread of flu in the community and avoid you having to juggle a sick child with work and other commitments.   

"The NHS national booking system is closed. But eligible persons can still continue to speak to their GP, or alternatively a local pharmacist about getting their vaccination. 

"Flu antivirals are effective in helping to keep people out of hospital and preventing the virus spreading to other more vulnerable household and family members. Now that we are seeing flu increasing it’s important that GPs consider the possibility of flu in respiratory patients and the use of antivirals in line with national guidance, particularly if they have ruled out COVID-19.

"You can help reduce the spread of these infections by avoiding mixing with others where possible when showing signs of a respiratory illness like flu and COVID-19, particularly those who are more vulnerable."

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Thomas Waite said:

"The latest data indicates the flu season is very much underway and COVID-19 infections are increasing.

"The use of antivirals against flu in primary care will help protect the most vulnerable over the winter. If you are eligible and have not managed to get vaccinated yet, now is the time."

Health Minister Maria Caulfield said:

"Authorising the use of antivirals indicates that flu is reaching more serious levels so it is important that we take care. I’d encourage anyone eligible who is yet to come forward for the vaccine to book an appointment and get protected as soon as possible.

"These additional tools will help us relieve the pressure on our NHS as they cope with the busy Christmas and New Year periods and will provide extra protection not just for you but also for your loved ones."

The alert concerning flu antiviral medicine has been issued to primary care settings including GPs and community pharmacies in England.

The Department of Health and Social Care continues to work closely with the manufacturers of antiviral medicines, used in the treatment of flu, to monitor stocks and ensure that there are adequate supplies of these medicines available to meet UK demand.

UK Health Security Agency