21st December 2012 - As the Christmas break begins, the Health Protection Agency says latest figures show seasonal flu is now circulating.
The HPA has been looking at data from visits to GPs, respiratory outbreaks in schools and people ringing NHS Direct call centres.
For the week ending 16th December, the GP consultation rate for flu-like illness in England was 23.4 people per 100,000. There were also 12 flu-related admissions to intensive care units.
There's been a rise in cases especially in the five to 14 age group. "We are seeing an increase in flu activity mainly among school children indicating the start of this year’s flu season," Dr Richard Pebody, head of seasonal flu surveillance at the HPA says in a statement.
Last year was a mild one in terms of cases and complications from seasonal flu. "Every season we remain vigilant and assess the flu situation as more information becomes available from our various surveillance systems and from the different virus samples we receive from across the UK," Dr Pebody says.
This week the government's Chief Medical Officer wrote to GPs and other health professionals urging them to attempt a "final push" on getting those in risk groups to have flu jabs before there is a significant rise in flu cases.
The Department of Health has also issued new guidance to doctors on the use of antiviral drugs for people with flu symptoms who are at a higher risk of developing complications.
GPs can now prescribe antiviral medicines oseltamivir and zanamivir on the NHS to treat flu and as a preventive measure for people in at-risk groups whose health could be harmed by flu complications, including pregnant women and over 65s. Other at-risk groups include people with underlying medical conditions, including heart problems, diabetes, lung, liver or renal diseases and weakened immune systems.
GPs can also use their own clinical judgment to decide whether antivirals should be given to people outside of the at-risk groups.
The HPA says latest flu vaccine uptake figures for over 65s "are encouraging", with 71.7% taking up the offer of the flu jabs.
48.3% of patients under 65 in clinical risk groups have had the flu jab.
39.6% of pregnant women have had the flu jab.
Uptake rate for flu vaccination among frontline healthcare workers as at the end of November was 40.8%.
Symptoms of flu include a sudden fever, cough, sore throat, aching muscles and joints.
The NHS advises normally healthy people to stay at home, rest, drink plenty of fluids and take appropriate pain relievers such as paracetamol. Children under 16 should not take any medicines containing aspirin.
Dr Richard Pebody says: "Although unpleasant, flu is a self-limiting illness and if you have flu it is best to stay at home until you are well. If people in at risk groups develop symptoms consistent with flu, or if anyone’s symptoms persist or become more severe, we advise they seek medical advice."
The HPA also urges simple flu prevention measures, such as good cough and hand hygiene. These include helping to stop germs spreading by covering the nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing and sneezing, disposing of the tissue as soon as possible and washing hands or cleaning them with sanitiser as soon as possible.
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