Serious winter flu cases virtually wiped out in Northern Ireland

People seriously ill in hospital during the winter of 2019/20 (left), compared with this winter so far (right)People seriously ill in hospital during the winter of 2019/20 (left), compared with this winter so far (right)
People seriously ill in hospital during the winter of 2019/20 (left), compared with this winter so far (right)
There has been a massive collapse in the number of people falling seriously ill with seasonal flu – something which causes a regular spike in deaths each winter.

A weekly bulletin produced by the Public Health Agency (PHA) shows a remarkable flatlining in the number of people in Northern Ireland with flu-like symptoms seeking or needing medical help.

This is despite an increase in the number of people being tested.

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Back in October, this was foretold by virus expert Ultan Power of Queen’s University Belfast.

He had told the News Letter that in places which had already had their winters (Southern Hemisphere countries such as Australia) “flu has been reduced substantially”.

This was in large measure thanks to the lockdown conditions designed to combat Covid – hand-washing, social distancing, and simple lack of contact.

Whilst this may be seen as something of a “silver lining” for the NHS, freeing up the number of critical beds available, other official figures show that – thanks to the rampant coronavirus – total respiratory-related deaths are still up compared to last year.

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The PHA starts counting seasonal flu figures from the first week of October until the third week of May.

> In week 52 (ending December 27) there were 0.7 people per 100,000 who had gone to their GP with flu symptoms.

> In same week one year earlier, the figure was 10.4 per 100,000.

> In terms of those getting out-of-hours consultations about flu symptoms during that week, the figure stood at 2.2 per 100,000 population.

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> And for the same week last year, the figure was 14.7 per 100,000.

But the deeper into the data you go, the more striking the numbers become.

> Out of 1,899 flu samples take on the week ending December 27, literally zero came back with a positive result for flu.

> In the very same week one year earlier there were about 750 tests – and 30% of them were positive for flu.

Perhaps the most arresting stat of all is this:

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> There were about 220 people in hospital due to flu during that week last year (nine of them in intensive care or a “high dependency unit”).

> And during the same week in 2020? Zero patients.

Sadly for many families, despite the virtual eradication of serious winter flu, there were still 142 respiratory-related deaths registered in the last week of 2020, according to the NI Statistics and Research Agency.

This is way above the average respiratory deaths for that same week over the last five years (97).

Despite the good news about flu, government advice remains to get vaccinated if you’re in a vulnerable group.

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This includes pregnant women, those aged 65 and over, those in care homes, and people with “an illness or underlying health condition (including children from 6 months of age)”.

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