Parents are being urged to get their young children vaccinated against flu as data suggests hospitalisation rates among under-fives have almost doubled in England in the space of two weeks.
Data suggests the UK could face a triple whammy of respiratory illness this winter. While experts are concerned there could be another Covid wave, levels of both flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) are increasing. The latter is a common winter virus that typically affects young children and can cause bronchiolitis.
Dr Conall Watson, consultant epidemiologist for the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), said hospital admission rates for flu had risen in recent weeks and were highest in children under five.
“Already this year a small number of young children have needed intensive care. Please book your preschooler in for flu vaccine at your GP surgery as soon as you can,” he said. “Flu nasal spray vaccine is also currently being offered to all primary school children and will be available for some secondary school years later this season.”
According to data from the UKHSA released on Thursday, only 16% and 17.1% of children in England aged two and three years old respectively have had their flu vaccination this season. These levels are below those recorded for the same time last year.
Flu levels are rising, according to figures from the respiratory datamart for England, a sentinel system that tests for major respiratory viruses in swabs taken from people in hospital settings and GP surgeries. The percentage of samples testing positive has risen from 1.6% in the week ending 18 September to 5.2% in the week ending 23 October, when it reached 12% in five- to 14-year-olds.
UKHSA data suggests while levels of flu and related hospital admissions are still far below the peaks seen in previous winters, the overall hospital admission rate is higher than observed at this point in the season in the past four years.
While overall flu hospitalisations fell slightly in England for the most recent week, reaching 0.72 per 100,000, they rose to 3.19 per 100,000 in children under five – up from 1.63 per 100,000 two weeks before.
RSV infection levels and hospitalisation admission rates are also increasing in young children. And while data from England suggests admissions of Covid-positive patients are declining, as are infection levels, experts have raised concerns that there could be an increase in the weeks and months to come as new variants take hold.
Covid infection levels rose in Scotland and Northern Ireland but fell in Wales in the week ending 17 October, according to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics, which is lagged by two to three weeks. In England the trend was unclear, with about one in 30 people in the community thought to have had Covid in the most recent week. Trends in levels of infection varied by age group and region in England.
Prof Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, said the current situation, with multiple viruses proliferating, was to be expected.
“This ‘triple whammy’ is not surprising – it’s a result of us all being relatively isolated and careful of mixing over the last two years as a consequence of restrictions and lockdowns. This means that our immune systems have not been as exposed to the usual winter respiratory infections that ‘top up’ our immune responses and reduce the severity of subsequent infections,” he said.
“The best way to help prevent the spread of infections is to restrict mixing with others when you are most infectious – for example if you have severe cold-like symptoms – and to get vaccinated, if eligible, against both Covid and flu. Popping on a face mask when you are in crowded, poorly ventilated spaces would also help.”