Influenza rates appear to be “levelling off” for the moment in England and rates have begun to decrease in Scotland, leading public health experts to suggest the worst might be over for this year.
More than an estimated 31,500 patients presented with influenza-like-illness in general practice in England between 15-21 January, according to the latest figures from the Royal College of GPs.
The rate of presentations remains largely unchanged, rising by just over 1,000 consultations from 53.1 per 100,000 population in the second week of the year to 54.1 per 100,000 in the third.
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Broken down by region, presentations of influenza-like illnesses increased in the South region, from 54.3 to 59.6 per 100,000 population, and in London, from 42.1 to 44.9 per 100,000 population.
In contrast, in the North region they decreased from 57.3 to 54.9 per 100,000 population and in the Midlands and East region decreased from 57.9 to 53.6 per 100,000 population.
Nationally, presentations of acute bronchitis, common cold and respiratory system diseases in general practice also remained largely unchanged, said the college. However, it noted that presentations of asthma increased slightly from 17.7 per 100,000 population to 20.8 per 100,000 population.
RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said: “Whilst influenza rates have levelled out for now, this means that there are still huge numbers of patients being seen in general practice with flu and other common winter conditions – and GPs and our teams are certainly feeling the pressure.
“We’re certainly not out of the woods yet this flu season, as the influenza virus is incredibly unpredictable”
Simon de Lusignan
Professor Simon de Lusignan, medical director for the RCGP’s Research and Surveillance Centre, said: “Rates of influenza-like illness presentations in general practice have flattened off.
“But they do remain above what we term the ‘medium’ threshold overall, and rates in over 65-year-old patients remain above the ‘very high’ threshold,” he warned.
“We’re certainly not out of the woods yet this flu season, as the influenza virus is incredibly unpredictable,” he said. “It is quite possible that rates will rise again.”
The weekly report from the RCGP’s Research and Surveillance Centre, including the latest flu figures in England, is published every Thursday afternoon:
Meanwhile, weekly statistics from Health Protection Scotland showed a slight decrease in GP consultations for flu-like cases in the third week of January.
Its latest report showed 102 people per 100,000 of the population were reported as having flu-like illness in the week ending January 21, down from 114 per 100,000 the previous week.
Early analysis suggests that the peak in GP consultations has now passed, however monitoring is still ongoing to assess the impact of flu across all healthcare systems, said the Scottish government.
“We will continue to work with health boards to ensure they are coping with the challenges of flu this winter”
Scottish health secretary Shona Robison said: “It is encouraging to see the number of reported flu-like illnesses fall. While we could yet see a rise this winter, the data suggests we have now passed the peak of GP consultations.
“The GP consultation rate for flu-like illness is still around five times higher than same week last year and the Scottish government will continue to monitor the situation,” she said.
She added: “There are still a few months of winter left so we will continue to work with health boards to ensure they are coping with the challenges of flu this winter.”
Dr Gregor Smith, Scotland’s deputy chief medical officer, said: “Flu-like illnesses will continue to impact on the health and social care services for some time, but the recent decrease does offer hope that we are over the worst.
“The predominant strain is covered by this year’s flu vaccine and I’d continue to encourage anyone in an eligible group to take up the free jab as it is the best defense against flu,” he noted.
According to latest figures, 1,469,626 flu vaccinations were administered in Scotland this winter up to the 21 January 2018, compared with 1,449,870 for the same period in 2016-17.