Risk of winter surge in flu cases ‘in the balance,’ says leading expert

Globally, cases remain ‘at lower levels than expected for this time of the year,’ according to latest WHO surveillance report

Samuel Lovett
Friday 17 September 2021 15:46
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The risk of a global surge in flu cases is “in the balance,” a leading expert has said, as countries across the world continue to ease Covid measures and international travel increases – providing the virus with more opportunities to spread.

After more than 18 months of lockdowns and restrictions, during which the circulation of influenza has been suppressed, scientists are fearful of a resurgence in cases among vulnerable groups and people whose immunity has waned.

However the World Health Organisation’s latest influenza update struck a positive note, saying that, globally, cases “remained at lower levels than expected for this time of the year”.

There have been no recent detections reported in tropical South America, tropical Africa or South East Asia, the surveillance report said. Up to 29 August, “a few” cases were recorded in Western, Middle and Eastern Africa, while sporadic detections were seen in the Caribbean and Central America.

However, detections have “continued to increase” in India and Nepal, the WHO said.

In England, there were no positive cases of influenza identified by health authorities in the week up to 14 September.

But John McCauley, director of the World Influenza Centre at the Francis Crick Institute, called for caution and said it remained difficult to judge how serious an issue flu will become in the months ahead.

“We are likely to be more susceptible to flu since the overall population immunity will not have been built up last winter and so will have waned,” he told The Independent.

“But we might be less exposed since the level of flu in circulation is relatively low. So that puts it in the balance.

We are likely to be more susceptible to flu since the overall population immunity will not have been built up last winter and so will have waned

John McCauley, director of the World Influenza Centre at the Francis Crick Institute

“Note, though, India is reporting quite some flu activity, as is Qatar, and China had activity over the last eight months. So, exposure will increase as travel is increased.”

Countries have reopened their borders to foreign travellers in recent months, with airline companies increasing flight numbers to meet a rise in demand for travel.

Commercial flights across the European Union increased by 72.8 per cent in July, compared to the year before, and 47.6 per cent in August, according to data released by Eurostat.

In anticipation of a large uptick in flu cases across the UK, the government has launched its largest vaccination programme in history, with more than 35 million people set to be offered the vaccine as a jab or nasal spray.

Last year free flu vaccines were expanded to all adults over 50 and children in the first year of secondary school, with a record 19 million flu vaccines were administered. But this year the plans are even bigger, with secondary school pupils up to Year 11 included in the programme.

In the summer, Professor Anthony Harnden, the deputy chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, warned that “flu could be potentially a bigger problem this winter than Covid”.

“We’ve had a very, very low prevalence of flu for the last few years, particularly virtually nil during lockdown, and we do know that when flu has been circulating in very low numbers immunity drops in the population, and it comes back to bite us.”

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