The flu is returning to Europe this winter at a faster rate than expected by medical authorities, after it almost disappeared last year, raising concerns about a prolonged “double pandemic”, according to Reuters24, according to DIGI24.
Quarantine, wearing a face mask and social distancing, which became normal in Europe during the COVID-19 pandemic, wiped out the flu last winter, temporarily eradicating a virus that kills around 650,000 people a year worldwide, according to EU figures.
Influenza viruses have been circulating in Europe since mid-December at a faster rate than expected, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) reported this month.
The figure is well below the pre-pandemic levels, given that in the same period of 2018 there were over 400 cases of ATI.
But it is a big increase from last year, when there was only one case of flu in an intensive care unit throughout December, the data show.
The return of the virus could be the beginning of an unusually long flu season, which could last until the summer, ECDC’s top flu expert Pasi Penttinen told Reuters.
“If we start lifting all prevention measures, the big concern I have for the flu is that because we have had such a long period of free circulation of the flu virus to the European population, maybe we will move away from the normal seasonal patterns.” he said.
Penttinen explained that giving up restrictive measures in the spring could prolong the flow of the flu well beyond the normal end of the European season in May.
A “double pandemic” could put undue pressure on already overburdened health systems, ECDC says.
In France, three regions – including the Paris region – are facing an influenza epidemic, according to data released by the French Ministry of Health last week. Other regions are in a pre-epidemic phase.
So far this season, France has reported 72 serious cases of influenza, with six deaths.
Complicating matters further, the dominant strain of influenza circulating this year appears to be H3 virus A, which usually causes the worst cases among the elderly.
Penttinen said it was too early to make a final assessment of flu vaccines, as more sick patients were needed. But lab tests show that vaccines available this year are “not optimal” for H3.
This is largely due to the fact that the strain circulated very little or not at all when the vaccines were made last year, making it more difficult for vaccine manufacturers to predict which strain will be dominant in the upcoming flu season.
Vaccines Europe, the largest vaccine maker in the region, acknowledged that strain selection was hampered by very low flu circulation last year, but added that there is still not enough data to assess the effectiveness of vaccines this season.
Influenza vaccines are adapted every year to make them as effective as possible against the ever-changing flu virus. Their composition is decided six months before the start of the flu season, based on the circulation of viruses in the opposite hemisphere. This gives drug manufacturers time to develop and produce the necessary doses.