‘No Point in Trying to Close the Borders’: Aussie Flu Threatens Britain
Britons have been steeling themselves against the dreaded “Aussie flu” as the H3N2 strain responsible for Australia’s soaring flu rates spreads to Britain.
British tabloids have dubbed the H3N2 strain the “Killer Aussie Flu”, and the “Lurgy from Down Under” after the influenza A subtype was largely responsible for Australia’s brutal flu season.
The Mirror has also reported the strain had “claimed its first victims” in Ireland, though few deaths have been reported, and The Telegraph claimed the “Australian flu has hit Scotland”, clogging up the National Health Service help line with thousands of calls in the days leading up to Christmas.
British health authorities who closely followed Australia’s soaring flu rates were bracing for the arrival of H3N2 (an influenza A strain), and the potential for outbreak of a similar magnitude.
The NHS is urging the public to take advantage of the seasonal vaccination but have conceded the same vaccine formulation used in Australia was less effective than first hoped. The vaccines created in March and distributed in September take six months to produce the quantity needed for a national population.
Public health experts said it was almost inevitable that the strain would spread through Britain during the northern winter, The Express reported.
Professor Robert Dingwall at Nottingham Trent University warned the H3N2 strain could trigger the worst flu season in Britain in 50 years.
“There is no point in trying to close the borders. It’s almost inevitable this will come to us. This is potentially the worst winter since the Hong Kong flu outbreak of 1968,” Professor Dingwall said.
NHS chief Simon Stevens told an NHS Expo: “The signs from Australia and New Zealand are that it has been a heavy flu season and many of the hospitals down there have struggled to cope. I’m confident this is not just the biggest on record but the largest flu outbreak we’ve seen for some time.”
Britain will likely contend with both influenza A and B strains through the winter months, with surveillance reports suggesting the subtypes were fairly evenly matched towards the end of December.
Australia’s 2017 flu season was the most potent since the 2009 pandemic. More than 233,400 confirmed cases were recorded nationally in 2017 (more than 180,000 during the flu season), two-and-a-half times the number of cases in 2016.
A total of 745 people with confirmed cases died, compared to the five-year average of 176 deaths, though the true mortality rate is likely to have been higher.
The H3N2 strain accounted for 55 per cent of all lab-confirmed cases.
The infection was no more serious than in previous years, but the seasonal flu vaccine offered low protection against the dominant H3N2 strain, which had mutated since the vaccine was formulated.
The current egg-base technology used to create vaccines takes six months to produce the quantities needed for a national vaccination program.
The elderly were particularly susceptible to the H3N2 virus, compounded by the low level of protectiveness offered by the vaccine and their weaker immune response.
A spokeswoman for Public Health England told The Express that the authority was “continuing to prepare for all scenarios this winter and this includes the implementation of the vaccine programme”.
“Our vaccines contain the strains which the World Health Organisation recommends we vaccinate against, based on the best available evidence.”