Department of Health says outbreak is within normal range of season flu, even though main strain in circulation is H1N1.
Flu cases rose steeply last week, up by more than 40%, according to doctors reporting a surge of visits to their practices.
In the week to December 26 there were 124.4 cases of flu per 100,000 population in England and Wales, the Royal College of GPs said. During the previous week there were 85.8 cases per 100,000.
The weekly figures from the college will be an underestimate, as they do not include those who stay at home in bed instead of visiting the doctor. The numbers give an idea of the extent of flu but not the severity – that will come tomorrow when the Health Protection Agency reports on the number of people with severe illness and those who have died.
The Department of Health said that the outbreak was within the normal range of seasonal flu, even though the main strain in circulation is H1N1 swine flu, which was responsible for last year’s pandemic.
“These figures are in keeping with what we would expect during a winter flu season,” said a spokesman. But the department is urging all those with illness to help stop its spread through good hygiene such as regularly washing their hands.
Everybody over 65 and of any age with underlying health problems is being urged to have the current flu vaccination. The college reported that vaccination levels, which were low when the outbreak began, have picked up and now match last year’s in the over-65s.
The main worry is that H1N1 swine flu disproportionately attacks those under 65 and can cause severe illness in people who were otherwise healthy, including pregnant women and children. Pregnant women are all being advised to be vaccinated.
The royal college’s figures show an increase in illness all age groups except schoolchildren. The worry is that flu will take off among them when schools reopen. The numbers still fall short of epidemic level, which is 200 cases per 100,000. The peak of the present outbreak has not yet been reached, however.
In London the pressure group Health Emergency claimed that intensive care beds were already under pressure and warned of problems in the new year if flu continues to spread. Geoff Martin, the group’s chairman, accused the coalition of wasting money on NHS reorganisation instead of increasing intensive care capacity. “We are getting reports of intensive care units in London where up to a quarter of the beds are filled with swine flu cases and the crisis is getting worse by the day,” he said, adding that “there is no doubt that many ITUs [intensive therapy units] will soon have to close to new admissions, putting hundreds of lives at risk”.
The Department of Health denied there was a problem. “Our latest data shows that the number of people with confirmed or suspected flu in critical care beds is 460,” said a spokesman. “This represents less than one in seven of the total critical care beds available.
“The NHS is coping very well and only a small percentage of the intensive care capacity is being taken up with patients with flu.”