Ireland set for ‘nastier’ flu season over coming winter

Initial cases show coming strain of winter flu more severe for elderly

Dr Denis McCauley said doctors were seeing ‘early indications’ of a pernicious strain of flu. Photograph: Getty

Dr Denis McCauley said doctors were seeing ‘early indications’ of a pernicious strain of flu. Photograph: Getty

 

Early indications are that the coming winter flu season will be dominated by a “nastier” strain than normal, which could have a particularly severe impact on the elderly.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control warned on Tuesday that a “severe” strain of flu identified in early cases disproportionately affected older people.

Dr Denis McCauley, chairman of the Irish Medical Organisation’s GP committee, said doctors were seeing similar “early indications” in Ireland.

The Donegal-based GP said it seemed the strain of flu beginning to circulate was “quite pernicious” and could cause “significant illness”.

Every 10 years or so a more severe strain dominates a winter flu season, with Dr McCauley stating this appeared to be the case for the coming winter.

“This is the one, a particular strain that leads to worse illness … and more morbidity,” he said.

A bad flu season on top of a resurgence of Covid-19 cases was “the last thing we bloody well need”, he said. The flu strain was a “slightly nastier version of the normal one”, Dr McCauley added.

He said his advice to the public would be “don’t panic, but at the same time get your flu vaccine”.

A severe flu season, alongside the ongoing pandemic, would put the health service under further pressure, he said. “Hopefully it’s not going to feel like Christmas last year,” he added.

‘Serious illness’

A Health Service Executive (HSE) spokeswoman said the flu was a “serious illness”, with the flu vaccine the best protection against it.

“Although the severity of the flu season can vary, we know that people aged 65 and over are most likely to be impacted and have an increased likelihood of severe illness, being admitted into hospital or dying from flu when compared to the general population,” she said.

In a statement, the European centre said the overall number of detected cases of flu in Europe was still low, but cases were rising in Croatia “unusually early”.

The most common strain identified in recent weeks was A(H3N2), which the EU authority said disproportionately affected older people, “and is associated with lower vaccine effectiveness”.

The statement said “this is a sign that the upcoming influenza season could be severe for elderly people”.

Pasi Penttinen, head of the centre’s flu programme, said a “steep rise in flu infections during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic could have serious consequences for the elderly and those with weak immune systems”.

A bad flu season would also have an impact on health services “already strained” by Covid-19, Mr Penttinen said.