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The UK Health Security Agency said the season had started earlier than usual and hospital admissions were rising fastest among youngsters under five. The overall hospitalisation rate for influenza stood at 0.84 per 100,000 in the seven days to October 16, up from 0.52 per 100,000 in the previous week.
It follows warnings of a potentially deadly “twindemic” which could pile further pressure on health services as flu and Covid circulate together for the first time this winter.
Dr Mary Ramsay, director of public health programmes at the UKHSA, said: “Our latest data shows early signs of the anticipated threat we expected to face from flu this season.
“We’re urging parents in particular not to be caught out as rates of hospitalisations and ICU admissions are currently rising fastest in children under five.
“This will be a concern for many parents and carers of young children, and we urge them to take up the offer of vaccination for eligible children as soon as possible.”
Around 33 million people are eligible for a free flu inoculation this autumn and 26 million qualify for a Covid booster.
Toddlers aged two to three and all primary school children are being offered the nasal spray flu vaccine.
Professor Azeem Majeed, a GP and expert in public health at Imperial College London, urged people to maximise their defences ahead of winter.
He said: “In recent weeks, we have begun to see more people present to health services with respiratory infections such as flu.
“The NHS is now offering flu vaccines to eligible people – such as those over 50, health and care staff, carers, and the clinically vulnerable.
“If you are eligible, it’s important you take up the offer of a flu vaccination as this will help protect you from having a more serious illness and will also reduce pressures on the NHS this winter.”
More than 8.7 million Covid boosters have already been administered in England since the autumn drive began in early September.
Experts said there were early signs the jabs were helping to prevent a spike as the temperature drops.
The Covid-19 hospital admission rate was 11.75 per 100,000 population, a decrease from 12.53 in the previous week, the UKHSA report showed.
The number of suspected outbreaks in settings including care homes, schools and prisons also fell from 370 the previous week to 347.
Dr Ramsay said: “It’s possible that we’re already seeing the benefits from so many people taking up their Covid-19 autumn booster in England.
“Encouragingly, the latest data shows a small decrease in Covid-19 cases and hospitalisation rates over the past week.”
However, the latest Office for National Statistics Covid infection survey yesterday (FRI) showed prevalence of the virus remained high.
It estimated that one in 30 people, or 1.7 million, had Covid in private households in England during the week to October 10. This was up slightly from one in 35 the previous week.
The figure was one in 25 in Wales, one in 35 in Scotland and one in 40 in Northern Ireland.
Dr Ramsay added: “Cases could rise again at any point and we need to be armed in readiness through vaccination of everyone who’s eligible.
“Don’t delay, please come forward for both Covid and flu vaccinations as soon as you’re offered them.
“Vaccines remain our best protection against severe disease and hospitalisation this winter but it’s also vital that we all remain cautious as we head into winter when people tend to mix more indoors and the risk increases.
“If you are feeling unwell, avoid contact with elderly people or those with underlying health conditions.”
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