Mutating flu viruses linked to havoc at A&E departments

fluFlu rates have now reached their highest level than at any time in the previous three years, and doctors are blaming mutated forms of the flu virus that are not being protected against with the seasonal winter flu jab.

Strains of flu virus commonly naturally mutate, with changes being witnessed this year already within the US and Australia.

The primary flu virus rife this winter has been found to be influenza A type H3N2, appearing to disproportionately impacting the elderly.

On Wednesday David Cameron was speaking in Manchester and highlighted an increasing number of elderly patients as one of the main causes of pressure on hospital A&E departments, with one hospital even drafting in help from the Red Cross, as NHS capacity is pushed to its limits.

The prime minister noted how it was “particularly striking” that over a million more over-65s were seeking help at A&E in comparison to just four years ago, blaming a lack of “clarity” regarding GP access.

Cameron’s comments came as the latest GP Patient Survey for England show that almost 15% of patients could not get an appointment with their GP at the previous time of trying, though 78% of people who completed the survey still claimed they would recommend their GP surgery.

The US Centres of Disease Control has released a warning that half of the H3N2 viruses they have analysed were discovered to be “drifted strains” from the one covered by the winter flu jab. Public Health England (PHE) have tested 24 samples so far, with five found to be drifted strains. This means the flu type has mutated, resulting in the vaccines becoming less effective.

PHE say that more hospitals and GP surgeries are reporting a larger number of flu cases in comparison to that of the peak periods of the last three winters. It is this massive spike which is probably responsible for the severe pressures felt by hospitals up and down the country this week, but health officials believe the problems could continue to worsen for another eight weeks yet.

Dr Richard Pebody, head of seasonal flu surveillance at Public Health England, commented: “Overall, levels are now higher than the peak of flu activity observed in the last three seasons, but have not reached the levels seen in the last notable seasons of 2010/11 and 2008/09.”

Dr Ben Marshall, a specialist in respiratory medicine at Southampton General Hospital, says the number of patients admitted into hospital with respiratory illnesses has now doubled.

Asthma and COPD are two respiratory problems which can be significantly worsened by flu, sometimes resulting in serious complications that need hospital treatment.

The injected flu vaccine is available free of cost on NHS to those deemed to be high risk. This is to protect them against flu and the serious complications that can arise from it.

Those that qualify for a free flu jab include:

. People 65 years of age or over.

. Pregnant women.

. People with certain medical conditions.

. People living in a long-stay residential care home or other long-stay care facility.

. Those receiving a carer’s allowance, or the main carer for an elderly or disabled person who could. be at further risk if the carer was to become ill.

. Healthcare workers with direct patient contact or a social care worker.

Dr Tristan Clark, a specialist in infectious diseases and respiratory viruses at Southampton General Hospital, said: “We can sometimes predict what a flu season is going to be like based on the activity in the southern hemisphere before it reaches north of the equator and we know countries like Australia had a bad year.

“Unfortunately, since the vaccine was prepared, the influenza A H3 strain has changed significantly, making the vaccine less effective at protecting against the virus – something we occasionally see.”

People are still being advised to get vaccinated to offer some degree of protection, especially those with chronic illnesses who have yet to get the jab. Moreover, antiviral treatment Tamiflu is still active against all strains of the flu and works to lessen the severity of symptoms, particularly when taken early at an early stage of the condition.

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