Flu likely to peak this week or next, say health experts

HSE says between 18,000 and 20,000 likely to have suffered the virus last week

Dr Kevin  Kelleher  said there was an increase in the number of people receiving the flu vaccine last week. Photograph: David Cheskin/PA Wire

Dr Kevin Kelleher said there was an increase in the number of people receiving the flu vaccine last week. Photograph: David Cheskin/PA Wire

 

The incidence of flu in the population is likely to peak this week or possibly next as public health experts confirm between 18,000 and 20,000 people are likely to have suffered the virus last week.

Calls to GPs about influenza-related illnesses were at their highest last week since the 2010/2011 season.

About 500 people were admitted last week to eight “sentinel” hospitals that report detailed information to the Health Service Executive (HSE) about respiratory illnesses caused by flu.

However, these figures only cover eight out of the 40 State hospitals.

The highest number of admissions last week was of patients in the 15-64 age bracket.

In a briefing on Thursday, senior HSE managers and public health experts said the number of flu cases was not regarded as being at the “extreme” level reached in a pandemic about a decade ago.

According to the latest weekly influenza report, widespread influenza activity was reported in all HSE areas, with the exception of HSE-Midlands, during the first week of January. Influenza activity increased in all HSE areas.

The report said the proportion of influenza–related calls to GP out-of-hours services was “at very high levels and increased significantly” during the first week of 2018 to 9.5 per cent, compared to 5.3 per cent during the last week of 2017.

Dr Kevin Kelleher, assistant national director of public health and child health, said he suspected cases would peak this week or possibly just next week. There would then be a decline over the next four to five weeks.

“We’ve probably still got another four, five, six weeks of flu activity not dissimilar to what we have experienced in the last three to four weeks,” he said.

“We’ve reached what we call the moderate level, but we’ve not yet got to the high level, which...in the last 17-18 years we only breached four times and we’ve certainly not got to the extreme levels which we reached with the pandemic.”

Dr Kelleher also said there was an increase in the number of people receiving the flu vaccine last week, with some 10,000 people getting it compared to about 4,000 per week in the previous three to four weeks.

Dr Kelleher said figures published next week would indicate whether the end of school holidays had impacted on the numbers.

Damien McCallion, HSE national director with responsibility for the winter initiative, said there had been a 10.5 per cent increase in hospital attendances last week compared to the same week last year. Admissions were broadly in line with last year.

In relation to the numbers of patients on trolleys in the State’s hospitals, Mr McCallion said there was a “marginal” improvement on the same period last year but that this still remained “a challenge”.

Asked about an 80 year old woman who had waited more than 70 hours on a trolley at Galway University Hospital this week, Mr McCallion said this was “clearly unacceptable”.

“We can’t accept those sorts of situations,” he said.

“That isn’t acceptable and that’s something that’s focused on on a daily basis to ensure that’s minimised in the current difficulties.”

Mr McCallion said huge work had gone into planning this year but one of the unknowns was when the flu would hit and that could vary.

“The difficulty the system has when it hits its peak is that we do not have the capacity in the system so we can only plan around the capacity that we have.”

Mr McCallion said the forthcoming capacity review would not only identify gaps in the system in relation to acute beds, but also in community services.

“Clearly we need to invest more in order to expand the capacity of the system – not just acute beds but also in relation to clinical staff, community staff and also in terms of some of the models of care that are being pushed out at the moment.”