Until last week there had been no reported deaths from flu so far this winter. However, the HSE has now confirmed a number of fatalities.
The main strain posing a risk in Ireland is the so-called ‘Aussie flu’, a virulent strain of influenza A. The H3N2 subtype triggered two-and-a-half times the normal number of cases in Australia.
The elderly who may have compromised immune systems are particularly susceptible.
Cases of swine flu and the B strain have also been detected.
It comes as the HSE’s latest weekly influenza surveillance report, for the week ending December 17, recorded an increase in influenza activity.
Flu cases have led to 73 hospitalisations so far this winter, 19 of which occurred last week. It has now been confirmed for the first time that lives have been lost.
“There have been a few deaths already… under 10 people have died so far this year,” Dr Kevin Kelleher of the HSE confirmed. “I don’t give specific numbers when it’s less than 10 because people could be identified,” he added.
“There are deaths every year that happen directly as a result of the flu, which account for about 18 to 20 fatalities. On average, there are about 400 to 600 deaths a year which are associated with the flu indirectly.
“For example, these are people who may have died because of the heart disease, linked to the flu.”
He warned influenza B particularly affects those aged between five and 14.
Flu scientists are predicting that 2017’s outbreak could be one of the worst in half a century. This is based on the recent epidemic in Australia – our flu season follows theirs – where there were twice as many cases and deaths as the year before.
Dr Kelleher stressed it was not too late for people to be vaccinated. The more people who get it, he said, the less likely there will be a serious flu problem in the country.
“The most important thing is that if people think they’ve got it is to stay at home and look after themselves.
“The vast majority of people – 99pc of cases – can look after themselves at home.”
The HSE’s Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) has urged people in high-risk groups to get the flu vaccine. Those over 65, pregnant women and those under 65 with various health conditions are particularly at risk.
The flu virus indirectly resulted in the death of 1,000 people in Ireland last season.There are three main types of flu virus – A, B and C – and hundreds of different subtypes.
The A virus has caused some of the worst outbreaks in history, including the infamous Spanish flu in 1918 and swine flu in 2009. It mutates about three times faster than B, making it more likely that a new strain of A will cause a pandemic.
Australia – whose winter occurs during the Irish summer – had one of its worst outbreaks on record, with two-and-a-half times the normal number of cases.
Some of the country’s A&E units had ‘standing-room only’ after being swamped by more than 100,000 cases of the H3N2 strain.