EU health authorities say the annual flu season started early in western Europe and Scandinavia while the south-west of the continent – notably Spain and Portugal – have experienced relatively milder flu seasons.
However, the European Centre for Disease for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) is warning that countries in central and eastern Europe can expect to see outbreaks in the weeks ahead of similar intensity to those experienced in western Europe in late December and early January.
In a new report, the ECDC says outbreaks during the Christmas and New Year holiday period put more pressure on primary care and emergency health services than was seen last year. Countries which have yet to see a strong increase in flu cases should prepare to deal with higher demand in the weeks ahead.
Protect and prepare
Dr Marc Sprenger, ECDC Director, said observing patterns in countries where flu season came early can help others to prepare.
“Influenza has to be taken seriously. Each year around 10% of the population is infected and influenza-related complications cause hundreds of thousands of hospitalisations across Europe,” he said.
As usual, there are a number of different types of flu virus circulating in the population. These can be divided into two main categories: type A and type B. So far the proportions of type A and type B viruses have been fairly even.
“ECDC continues to emphasise that all Europeans who are recommended to have the influenza vaccine by their national authorities should get vaccinated,” Dr Marc Sprenger said.
He added that the most commonly recommended groups are older people, those with chronic disease, health workers and – in many but not all countries – pregnant women. “Immunisation remains the single most effective preventive measure for protection against influenza,” according to the ECDC director.
Meanwhile, the number of fresh outbreaks in the US may be easing after one of the most severe flu seasons in recent years.
The US Centres for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) says eight children died of flu-related illnesses at the end of January but the overall flu mortality rate is falling. The CDC also says flu vaccination rates among adults and health workers in the US are too low.