Diseases have their cycles and flu is no different.
Each winter we expect an outbreak and each winter one occurs. But this winter something odd is happening. Monitoring suggests there is not very much flu about in the community – just above baseline levels, according to the latest figures from the Health Protection Agency. Yet there is a disproportionate number of severe cases that require intensive care and end, in a few cases, in death. Moreover, most of those hardest hit are young, whereas flu traditionally carries off the old.
After last year's pandemic, H1N1 swine flu has become the dominant seasonal virus and is likely to remain so for years to come. It is mild in most people but nasty in some, especially pregnant women, and those with chronic health problems, such as asthma and diabetes. Pregnant women are at risk because pregnancy reduces the immune response to prevent the mother's body from rejecting the baby. In contrast, older people have some protection by virtue of having been exposed to viruses circulating 35 to 40 years ago.
The surge of severe cases in the past fortnight, which has seen more than 100 intensive-care beds nationwide occupied by swine-flu patients, may be a blip. But specialists fear it will grow, putting extra pressure on NHS intensive care and threatening more young lives. The British Medical Association warned yesterday of a "major flu crisis" this winter as vaccination rates have fallen. Dame Sally Davies, the Government's acting Chief Medical Officer, appealed to pregnant women to protect themselves with the vaccine.
National vaccination rates are 2 per cent down on last year, at 67.2 per cent for over-65s and 41.6 per cent for under-65s in the at-risk groups. Anecdotal reports suggest that in some areas the figure is much lower.
For pregnant women and others with health problems, flu vaccination should now be the priority. The Department of Health needs to act now to get the message across.