COVID-19: Expert discusses the threat of a flu outbreak
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After 18 months of reduced contact, medical experts are now warning the upcoming winter season could be particularly dangerous if there is a resurgence of the flu. While the UK has been banking on its wildly successful coronavirus vaccine campaign, scientists and doctors are warning that the upcoming winter could be particularly tough in light of lockdown restrictions.
Flu seasons are worse when virulent strains of the virus are introduced to groups with little or no immunity.
Recent years in the UK have been marked by reasonably low numbers of flu cases; Public Health England’s respiratory datamart flu surveillance system detected no positive samples for flu between December 28, 2020 and February 14, 2021.
At the time, PHE head of flu Dr Vanessa Saliba said both public health guidance and restrictions, as well as high flu vaccination uptake, have likely led to the low levels of flu circulating this season.
She said: “The decrease in flu cases is likely due to changes in our behaviour, such as social distancing, face coverings and handwashing, as well as the reduction in international travel.”
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But as our behaviour has changed back to almost what was considered normal prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the risk of a bad flu season has been increased.
Martin Michaelis, Professor of Molecular Medicine at the University of Kent, told Express.co.uk: “There is indeed a risk that we will be confronted with a bad flu season, because the COVID-19 measures may have affected the dynamics of influenza viruses circulating in humans and our ability to predict the influenza virus strains that will cause the next outbreak.
“Normally, there are little changes between the influenza viruses that circulate year on year.
“Occasionally, however, a completely new influenza virus takes over, against which there is limited or no pre-existing immunity in the human population.
“This then results in flu pandemics such as the Spanish Flu (1918-1920), the Asian Flu (1957-1958), and the Hong Kong Flu (1968-1969).”
While a new flu strain of particular note has not been detected, there are still significant risks as the UK goes into a winter without restrictions.
“Normally, influenza viruses circulating in the human population are closely monitored to predict which strains will be the dominant ones in the next winter flu season,” Professor Michaelis continued.
“These predictions are usually quite good, but occasionally there are surprises.
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“Since the composition of the yearly flu jab is based on these predictions, inaccuracies mean that vaccines do not match the circulating viruses well, which then typically results in more severe outbreaks.
“In this context, the low levels of flu during the last 18 months have significantly affected our ability to predict which influenza viruses will be circulating in the next winter.
“Hence, there is an increased risk that the predictions may not be as accurate as they usually are.
“This poses two major risks: new viruses may have taken over against which there is lower immunity across the population, and the vaccines may not match these viruses well and may provide limited protection.”
Dr Richard Dawood from The Fleet Street Clinic advises the same precautions taken with COVID-19 will help with keeping the flu at bay.
Dr Dawood advises Express.co.uk readers: “The same social distancing and hygiene precautions that protect against Covid also protect against flu.
“I think one important lesson that will serve us well in future is to stay away from other people when you have respiratory symptoms.
“It has long been a British tradition to carry on regardless of minor symptoms, but we really should be more conscious of the need to protect those around us from infection – both at home and at work.”
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