IT’S been labelled the ‘Killer Aussie Flu’, and the ‘Lurgy from Down Under’ but after months of tabloid speculation the potentially deadly H3N2 strain of influenza looks to have finally hit these shores, raising fears the nation may be set to endure its worst flu season for 50 years.
News that the illness had reached Ireland came from the unlikely source of boxer Connor MacGregor who described in an Instagram post published on New Year’s Day morning: “Well that was a wild New Year’s Eve. Half the family hit with the Australian flu virus and some even left in hospital with it. I’ve never even been to Australia.”
And now, the Irish health service has confirmed that the ‘Aussie Flu’ had led to a number of deaths in the country.
Public Health England figures show a significant rise in the number of people reporting flu-like symptoms to their GP in the week ending December 28 from the previous seven days.
NHS Providers, which represents health service acute, ambulance, community and mental health services, has warned this year’s flu strain is “potentially the worst we have seen in two decades”.
Last week, hospitals were advised to defer non-urgent operations until mid-January with the festive period expected to put the NHS under further pressure. In North Wales, residents have been asked not to visit Wrexham Maelor Hospital if they are or have been unwell with flu-like symptoms in the last seven days, unless it is an emergency.
Australia’s 2017 flu season was the most potent since the 2009 pandemic with more than 233,400 confirmed cases recorded nationally in 2017 (more than 180,000 during the flu season), two-and-a-half times the number of cases in 2016.
A total of 745 people with confirmed cases died, compared to the five-year average of 176 deaths, though the true mortality rate is likely to have been higher.
The reason the H3N2 strain is causing so many problems is linked to flu viruses constantly mutating, meaning vaccines against the illness have to change every season too. The vaccine used in Australia isn’t thought to have worked very well, meaning there were more cases and probably more deaths,
Despite these alarming figures, Wrexham GP and The Leader’s medical expert, Dr Peter Saul, has urged people not to panic.
“It is still too early to say if we’ll have the same pattern of disease as our Aussie friends had a few months ago,” said Dr Saul.
“Down Under, the flu season was more severe than previously so the NHS is bracing itself.”
While the symptoms of ‘Aussie Flu’ such as sore throat and cough, headache, fever and muscle ache are similar to the regular flu, they are usually more intense, and while the regular flu should run through your system within a week, if your symptoms persist for more than seven days, check with your doctor to ensure you haven’t contracted the new virus. Those most at risk of complications include young children, the over 65s, pregnant women and people with certain health conditions, such as asthma, chronic lung disease and heart disease, plus people with a weakened immune system.
“For individuals who are at risk it isn’t too late to get a flu shot at the GP surgery, but maybe wait till the week after next as practices will be spending the New Year week catching up,” advised Dr Saul.
“Doctors have also been given the go-ahead to prescribe Tamiflu, the anti viral drug designed to counter the infection.
“Tamiflu is not without controversy though. Side effects include nausea, vomiting, headache and kidney problems and some studies have cast doubt on how effective it is.
“Personally, I’m not convinced, though some evidence suggests it may shorten the length of symptoms by a day and reduce complications such as pneumonia.
“I think with very vulnerable individuals I may be inclined to prescribe, but for the rest of us I think it’s a case of paracetamol, rest and warm drinks.”