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Twindemic warning: Dual winter illnesses pose ‘serious risk’ to health of British public

Millions of people in the UK are being urged to take up flu and Covid vaccines after health experts said they were increasingly worried about a deadly “twindemic” occurring this winter. Officials at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) warned there will be lower levels of natural immunity to flu this year.

Some 33 million people are eligible for a free flu jab amid concern immunity will have plummeted during the pandemic

Pandemic conditions during the previous two winters have seen fewer people socialise, therefore leading to less spread of transmissible illnesses.

International surveillance shows the UK can expect the spread of H3N2 (a subtype of influenza type A), currently the most commonly detected flu virus worldwide.

The vaccine used by the UK is designed to fight this strain.

 

In the winter of 2017 to 2018, the H3N2 flu strain led to a severe UK flu season, with around 20,000 deaths and 40,000 hospital admissions.

Flu did circulate in the UK last winter, but with less mixing fewer people contracted it meaning there is far less immunity than usual.

Under plans announced on Wednesday, around 33 million people in England will be eligible for a free flu vaccine this year, including all primary-age and some secondary-age children, who will be offered the nasal spray.

Around 26 million people in England are also eligible for the autumn COVID-19 booster vaccine, and those eligible for both could be offered them at the same time in different arms.

The UKHSA fears the effects of the predicted flu wave may be compounded by a rise in coronavirus transmission as the nation heads into colder months.

Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser at UKHSA, said: “Flu and COVID-19 are unpredictable but there are strong indications we could be facing the threat of widely circulating flu, lower levels of natural immunity due to less exposure over the last three winters and an increase in COVID-19 circulating with lots of variants that can evade the immune response.

“This combination poses a serious risk to our health, particularly those in high-risk groups.”

Dr Hopkins said the H3N2 strain was capable of causing a “particularly severe illness” among the vulnerable.

Steve Russell, NHS director for vaccinations and screening, added: “This winter could be the first time we see the effects of the so-called ‘twindemic’ with both Covid and flu in full circulation, so it is vital those most susceptible to serious illness from these viruses come forward for vaccines in order to protect themselves and those around them.”

Those eligible for the flu jab include people aged 50 and over, pregnant women and frontline health and social care workers.

They can get a jab from their GP surgery or pharmacies offering an NHS vaccine service.

Writing in the Express today, Professor Sir Stephen Powis, NHS England’s medical director, said the Covid vaccination programme had “protected millions of people”, but “we cannot let the success of the programme lull us into a false sense of security”.

He said: “Covid remains a nasty virus that can make people, particularly the elderly and vulnerable, gravely ill. There are currently over 5,000 people in hospital with the virus.

“And with lower levels of immunity to flu due to lower-than-expected flu cases the past couple of years, people could be more at risk this year.

“In an average flu season, around 30,000 people can die from flu and pneumonia.

“It leaves the NHS facing the real possibility of a ‘twin-demic’ for the first time in its history this winter.

“That makes getting your top up protection against COVID-19 and your flu jab more important than ever. And the best time to get protected is now, ahead of winter before the viruses spread.”

 

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