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'No evidence' yet of flu circulating but HSE urges people to 'be prepared' for winter

Last winter there were no recorded cases of flu transmitted in Ireland.

Children aged 2 to 17 can avail of a free flu vaccination by nasal spray.
Children aged 2 to 17 can avail of a free flu vaccination by nasal spray.
Image: Alamy

THERE HAS NOT yet been any confirmed cases of flu transmitted this winter season but the HSE is advising people that getting a flu jab “early on” is the best way to protect themselves.

The HSE recently launched its winter flu vaccination programme with at-risk groups including pregnant women and those over 65 among those who are being urged to get a flu jab. 

Usually in Ireland, between 200 and 500 people die from flu each winter. Every year around the world, flu causes between three and five million cases of severe disease and up to 646,000 deaths.

Children in Ireland were offered a free flu jab for the first time last year and the programme has been expanded this year. The programme is now open to children aged 2 to 17 and is available through a nasal spray. 

Last winter there were no recorded cases of flu transmitted in Ireland but the return of international travel and a relaxing of restrictions means this is unlikely to be repeated this year. 

The latest weekly influenza epidemiology report by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) for the second week of October recorded that there was “no evidence” of flu circulating in the country. 

All specimens tested were negative for influenza with just one positive detection during the summer. 

This is not atypical for this early point in the flu season because influenza thrives in colder temperatures and prefers the humidity levels in the winter months. 

The virus is also more likely to be transmitted in winter months when people keep windows and doors closed. 

At this point in the flu season two years ago, influenza was said to be “at low levels” with just a handful of cases detected. 

Speaking to The Journal, HSE public health doctor and flu lead Dr Aparna Keegan said that it is not possible to predict how widespread flu may be this winter. 

“It’s really difficult to predict in terms of the severity of the flu season. We are noticing that there is flu circulating in the Northern Hemisphere and there is expectation that it will probably come to Ireland with the relaxation of foreign travel but also relaxation of the rules locally as well,” she said. 

I think It’s really important to remember that it’s difficult to predict these things and the best protection that we can do is to make sure that we are prepared and that the recommended groups for vaccination are protected early on.

Because strains of influenza mutate throughout the year, some components of annual flu vaccines are required to change, hence why immunisation must be repeated each year. 

This year, three different vaccines are being offered that contain protection against the four strains of flu virus that the World Health Organization (WHO) has said are most likely to be circulating.

In the UK, Health Security Agency chief executive Dr Jenny Harries stated recently that this year’s flu could be “multi-strain” and that natural immunity in the community could be lower than other years. 

Asked about levels of immunity to the flu, Dr Keegan said that this would be down to various factors including the strain of the flu which becomes dominant. 

There are some experts talking about those type of theories about increased population level susceptibility because of antibodies that are or are not circulating because we haven’t been exposed to flu recently, but it’s really difficult to predict the severity of the flu season because it’s dependent on a number of factors and related to the type of strains that are circulating, really what we’re trying to do is make sure people have the best protection this year early on.

While there have not been any confirmed cases of flu so far in the season, the HPSC has said that respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) activity in Ireland is “at higher levels than usually observed at this time of year”.

RSV is a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms, such as a cough but can lead to bronchiolitis in infants. 

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr. Ronan Glynn referenced RSV in his comments last week about increased social mixing leading to greater opportunities to transmit respiratory infections

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This is reflected in reports from GPs of a rise in viral infections among children

Dr Keegan said that, although symptoms of Covid-19, flu and RSV may initially be difficult to distinguish, there is a proper way to approach doing so. 

“In terms of looking at symptoms and what needs to happen in terms of your child and what you’d need to do, if you’d look at the hse.ie website it’ll give you quite detailed information on the up to date guidance for parents on what they’ll need to do if they need to get tested, when to stay off school. Obviously if you’re concerned about your child and they’re not doing very well it’s important that you talk to a trusted healthcare professional as well.”

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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