Britain told to brace for an early flu season by top expert as fears grow 60,000 could die from influenza this winter

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  • EXCLUSIVE: Britain won’t be hit by flu until January
  • But a top scientist has warned that this year’s wave may come earlier than expected
  • Alert is based on outbreaks in other countries which are increasing slowly

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Britain must prepare for an early flu outbreak this winter as cases are already rising in other countries, a top expert has warned.

The flu season in the UK lasts from September to March, but the virus does not usually hit the NHS until January.

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The latest surveillance shows cases have more than doubled in a fortnight, but are below levels seen from the same point in the 2019/2020 flu season. Health officials insist the virus is spreading only at ‘very low’ levels.

One of the world’s most distinguished flu scientists, Dr John McCauley, who is based at the Francis Crick Institute in London, has warned of a surge in Croatia, India and China that the UK and other countries may have had earlier outbreaks.

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The outbreak in Croatia may act as a ‘canary in the coal mine’ as evidence that the flu is already present and ticking upward in Europe.

The outbreak in India and China suggests that the flu is prevalent in large populations, and can be quickly exported by travelers to other countries.

He told MailOnline: ‘We will be able to tell in the next few weeks whether what we are seeing now is sustained. If that is the case, then we can expect an early flu season.

The official surveillance plan published by the UKHSA says flu cases in Europe remain at ‘inter-seasonal’ levels.

Health majors are offering flu vaccines to more than 35 million to 50 million, healthcare workers and at-risk groups. This is the largest flu vaccination campaign in the history of the NHS, and is taking place alongside the COVID booster roll out.

Experts fear the flu could kill as many as 60,000 Britons this year due to low immunity to the virus, as many have not been exposed to it for at least 12 months.

There are also growing fears that the NHS will be hit by COVID at the same time that cold weather and dark evenings will lead to increased social contact indoors – where the virus seems to be easier to spread.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid was pictured taking a flu jab yesterday, as he called on Britons to get their flu and COVID vaccines.

Flu is a seasonal threat on the NHS, with outbreaks more likely at this time of year as colder weather forces more people indoors where viruses – such as Covid – are easier to spread.

But it disappeared last winter amid lockdowns aimed at controlling the spread of Covid.

The graph above shows how the rate of GP appointments for influenza-like illness, such as stuffy nose and cough, has increased recently. These are not confirmed cases of flu, but indicate the spread of the virus in the population

The graph above shows the proportion of swabs for flu that have picked up the virus in Croatia, India, China and the UK.  Scientists warn the UK could be headed for an early flu season if the outbreak persists

The graph above shows the proportion of swabs for flu that have picked up the virus in Croatia, India, China and the UK. Scientists warn the UK could be headed for an early flu season if the outbreak persists

The graph above shows flu vaccine uptake in each group since 2015.  The dotted lines represent the purpose of jab uptake during this year's flu season.

The graph above shows flu vaccine uptake in each group since 2015. The dotted lines represent the purpose of jab uptake during this year’s flu season.

Asked about Britain’s flu status, Dr McCauley, head of the Worldwide Influenza Centre, warned that the UK may have to prepare for an initial surge in cases.

He said: ‘The flu is happening in some places, but whether it is spreading in some of these (like Norway and the Netherlands) is not known for sure.

‘On the other hand, there has been flu activity in Croatia in the past four weeks. I don’t know if this will continue in the coming weeks.

‘China has had the flu since January – but at a slightly lower level than two years ago.

Who is eligible for the flu jab this year?

Britain has launched its biggest ever flu vaccination campaign this year, aiming to educate more than 35 million people.

The shot aims to protect against four types of flu, following a recommendation from the World Health Organization.

However, there are concerns that the country could be facing a bad flu season.

Experts fear that the absence of the flu for more than a year means many people have a reduced immunity to the virus.

The flu jab is being offered to the following groups:

  • people over the age of 50;
  • take care of the residents of the house;
  • health and social care workers;
  • hypersensitive people;
  • those who live with the weak;
  • who receive a carer’s allowance;
  • pregnant women;

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‘Flu has happened in India too – but it is difficult to know how widespread it is in such a large country.’

Professor Francois Balloux, a geneticist at University College London, said the flu was likely to increase earlier this year than the previous season.

“One argument could be that it could be that so few people have been exposed to the flu in the past year, that they don’t have enough protection,” he told MailOnline.

‘But, looking at the data, we are still at a very inter-seasonal level of flu.

‘It might pick up, and it might start to flicker, but I can’t expect it to fly just yet.’

He said restrictions on travel between countries could change the way the flu spreads this season compared to previous years.

But he said the outbreak in a European country with open international travel with Britain could help spike cases here.

Data from the WHO’s own Flumart system – which monitors outbreaks globally – sheds light on the recent outbreak in Croatia, where 35 percent of swabs tested positive (50 out of 140) in the third week of September. The swab picked up the virus).

It has now fallen to 17 per cent in the latest week to October 3 (14 out of 79), but it is not clear whether the slowdown will persist.

India has seen about 10 percent of its nearly 3,000 flu tests pick up the virus every week since mid-August.

And data presented by China shows that flu cases have been on the rise ever since…

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