Winter flu pandemic started – what we know so far and what needs to be done to control it

5-15% of the population is affected by influenza in any given year, resulting in 3-5 million cases of acute influenza and approximately 650,000 deaths globally.

With the rate of transmission of COVID-19 also on the rise across our region, there is a risk that this so-called twin pandemic could put excessive pressure on already stretched health systems.

Here’s what we know so far.

The most common type of virus this winter

So far we have mainly seen influenza A (H3N2) viruses circulating in the Region. In most cases, these diseases cause mild illness, but they have been known to sometimes lead to severe illness and death in the elderly. Fewer influenza A (H1N1) pdm09 or influenza B viruses have been detected to date, although the distribution of viruses usually changes during the winter, so we may see this situation change.

Effectiveness of influenza vaccines

It’s too early in the season to decide whether current flu vaccines are effective in protecting against severe disease – we simply don’t have enough data yet. It is possible that the A(H3) vaccine will not be as effective as we would like against the dominant A(H3) viruses, which is why antivirals also need to play a large role in protecting vulnerable populations.

What should countries do about it?

(a) Monitoring the situation

Monitoring how the influenza virus spreads throughout the Region and its prevalent strains is critical to helping countries prepare for peak season. Countries should conduct influenza virological and clinical surveillance to characterize the types of viruses circulating, determine the timing of the influenza season, and measure the potential severity of disease—all of which may vary from season to season. Reporting this data to the European Center for Disease Control and Prevention helps us develop a regional and global picture of how the virus is behaving.

(B) vaccinate those at increased risk

Countries should continue to encourage vaccination. People at increased risk of developing serious illness from infection include the elderly, pregnant women, young children, immunocompromised people and people with underlying chronic medical conditions. These groups represent a large proportion of the population in the WHO European Region. Therefore, the European Center for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC) recommends that everyone at risk of developing severe illness from influenza, as well as health care workers, be vaccinated.

(C) The use of antivirals on infected patients at risk

Doctors should consider early antiviral treatments, according to local guidelines, for those who have had influenza and are at risk of severe disease, to prevent severe outcomes and reduce the burden on health care systems already under stress from COVID-19.

What should individuals do?

Get vaccinated as soon as possible and when your local health authority tells you to do so, especially if they are in an at-risk group or work in a healthcare setting.

We also recommend adopting preventive measures known to work against COVID-19, such as physical distancing and wearing masks to help prevent influenza infection in the elderly and those with serious medical conditions.

What does ECDC do?

Every week during influenza season (from early October to mid-May), the European Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in collaboration with WHO/Europe, collects and analyzes influenza surveillance data from Member States and publishes a weekly Bulletin of Influenza News in Europe.

The Bulletin provides public health officials and decision-makers in Member States with the information needed to assess influenza activity in the Region and helps them make decisions on appropriate actions to prepare their health systems and protect vulnerable populations.

WHO/Europe also advises on recommendations to monitor the spread of influenza virus across the region on the combination of vaccines, thus increasing their effectiveness as much as possible against the types of viruses that are expected to spread widely.

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Andrew Naughtie

News reporter and author at @websalespromo