Britain is facing the first serious flu outbreak for nine years, the Royal College of GPs (RCGP) warned yesterday. Figures released yesterday show a 75 per cent rise in people consulting doctors with flu-like symptoms compared with the previous week.
The rate has leapt from 39.5 consultations per 100,000 of the population on 14 December to 69 consultations yesterday. It is 73 per cent higher than in the same period last year.
Cases have also started to rise among elderly patients and not just in younger patients as previously reported. Flu has been rising sharply in recent weeks and, if present trends continue, it could be comparable to that in 1999-2000, the last winter when there was a significant outbreak.
In the nine years since, seasonal flu has been at its lowest level for more than three decades, rarely exceeding the baseline level of 50 consultations per 100,000 population. A flu epidemic is defined as 200 consultations per 100,000 population.
The biggest rise in people seeing their GP with flu-like symptoms was in the 65-plus age group which saw an increase of 150 per cent, from 18 consultations per 100,000 population to 45.
Douglas Fleming, a director at the RCGP's Birmingham Research Unit, said: "In the past 10 years, the only substantial outbreak was in 1999-2000. I think we could be looking at something like that this year."
Professor John Oxford, a flu expert at Queen Mary's School of Medicine, said excess winter deaths rose to 20,000 in 1999-2000, largely as a result of flu.
"It was not a very good year at all and it shows that anyone in an at-risk group should get themselves vaccinated. The good news is there is plenty of vaccine around."
The Department of Health's director of immunisation, Professor David M Salisbury, said: "Flu has started earlier this year than last year and today's figures show an increase in the number of people consulting their GPs with flu-like illnesses. We have had very little flu over the past few years and this year may be like 1999-2000 when figures were quite high. The best protection against flu is to have the flu jab.
"If you are over 65 or in one of the risk groups and have not had a jab this year, it's not too late. Contact your surgery to check if they still have supplies and make an appointment – it won't be too late, even after Christmas."
Professor Salisbury added: "There are simple steps that everyone can take to help prevent catching colds and flu.
"Always use a tissue to catch your sneezes, throw away used tissues where germs can linger and regularly wash your hands. If you think you have flu, stay at home, drink plenty of fluids and take medicines such as aspirin or paracetamol for your symptoms."
Rising rates of flu are likely to put additional pressure on emergency services over Christmas and the new year, when GP surgeries are closed. NHS trusts are already running at maximum stretch as a result of a surge of admissions caused by the cold weather.
John Heyworth, president of the College of Emergency Medicine, said most people with flu would not need to see a health professional and would be fine within two or three days. He said: "For the frail or elderly, flu can be more serious, and they may need to come to A&E if they cannot get care locally."
More people saw their doctors with flu-like symptoms last week than the week before.