Dr Mary McCarthy: Early winter flu warning forecast from abroad
Sometimes we get indications of problems that may affect us from other nations.
One of the indicators that the UK takes notice of is the way that viral infections behave in other countries, and the one that is concerning public health doctors at the moment is the incidence of influenza in Australia and New Zealand.
In the Southern Hemisphere it is now their winter season and the rate of infection with flu is surpassing all predictions.
In Australia it looks as if this winter will be the worst incidence rate for some years and much greater that the normal flu outbreak expected. Rates of infection have soared and doctors have advised everyone to get vaccinated in order to try and limit the outbreak and prevent the virus attacking vulnerable people.
Children and pregnant women are the first to be urged to have the vaccine but the over-65s, those with chronic diseases like diabetes and those with a history of respiratory disease such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are also targeted by the doctors and nurses running flu clinics.
In Western Australia there has been a huge increase in the number of flu cases notified to the public health system with 3,000 extra cases and 14 deaths in the last week alone. The increase in cases dwarfs the notifications in previous years, particularly since 2018 was a relatively mild year for virus infections.
Now people are crowding clinics to try and get flu vaccinations to protect themselves and their children.
In this Australian State there have been 9,016 laboratory confirmed cases this year compared to 1,399 at the same stage last year. Australian GPs are advising people to stay home if they are sick so as to try not to spread the virus around at work. They emphasise that hygiene is important, with regular hand washing, and the avoidance of public spaces if people are feeling unwell, and, of course, vaccination.
What happens in Australia during their winter tends to happen in throughout Europe in our winter but we have the advantage of being forewarned.
UK scientists are taking note of what Australian scientists have discovered about the prevalent strains and creating vaccines to target these flu strains, in particular. The vaccines will probably be developed in the next few months and ready in September to be delivered to GP practices.
Vaccination campaigns will start then, encouraging people to attend their GP surgery for their flu vaccination. NHS staff are also urged to get vaccinated in case they carry the virus to those who are especially vulnerable.
There are always some people who can’t get vaccinated because their immune system is compromised but if a high percentage of the population is vaccinated then the vulnerable are protected through herd immunity.
We are lucky to get advanced warning of a coming danger. It doesn’t often happen and we should take full advantage of it when it does. Forewarned is forearmed and vaccination is available and effective.
When you get the invitation for flu vaccination this year, please go. There is every indication that the incidence of infection will be very high this winter.
* Dr Mary McCarthy is chair of the local medical committee and represents Shropshire, North Staffordshire and South Staffordshire on the General Practitioners Committee of the BMA. She has worked at Belvidere Surgery in Shrewsbury for more than 20 years.