Emergency care doctors have said more vaccinations must take place and “resilience plans” drawn up after the “worrying signal” from Down Under. There have been 135,952 laboratory-confirmed cases of flu across Australia this year, well above the 17,349 average for the same point over the past five years. Almost 300 people are thought to have died from the virus, compared with 125 for the whole of the flu season – which peaks in July and August – last year.
Dr Nick Scriven, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said the figures from Australia “make grim reading and, if extrapolated to the UK, will cause major stress to an already overburdened system in terms of numbers if not severity”.
He added: “One concern is that last year we saw predominantly one strain of influenza, but already there are reports of two or three strains significantly circulating in the population that can complicate vaccination.”
Dr Taj Hassan, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, told Health Service Journal the Australian figures look “very scary indeed”.
He said: “We struggled last year [in A&Es] in incredibly benevolent circumstances.
“I am not sure that is going to happen this year. It is very important that we prepare.
“Perhaps we need to start vaccination early and set aside some money.”
He said work needs to be done in several areas, including vaccination uptake for healthcare workers and at-risk groups, such as patients with diabetes or asthma. He also called for more to be done to increase hospital bed capacity and prevent long trolley waits.
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “The spike in flu we are seeing in Australia could be a worrying signal of what is to come for health and care services this winter.
“Planning for vaccinations is based on what happens in the southern hemisphere.
“Trusts are already working hard to improve vaccination uptake among staff, and will strive to improve this further. We must also get our resilience plans in place as early as we can.”
But Public Health England said flu activity in Australia is not necessarily a predictor of what will happen in the UK.
Dr Richard Pebody, head of PHE’s flu surveillance, said: “We are monitoring closely to see if the high levels of activity continue or if this early activity represents the peak for this season.”