Flu death toll hits 24 as virus nears peak

The flu death toll so far this winter is 24, according to latest figures from the HSE.

Flu is now widespread, but the health authority believes it has peaked or is about to peak.

There were 24 direct deaths from flu reported to the HSE’s Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) between October and the end of last week.

The HSE’s public health specialist, Dr Kevin Kelleher, said it is the fifth worst flu season since records began in 2000.

There were 463 patients admitted to hospital with the flu last week, with 52 admitted to critical care units.

The HPSC has been notified of 1,019 confirmed hospitalised flu cases, with the highest rates in those aged over 65 followed by children aged less than one year.

Dr Kelleher said there is no evidence that the flu had particularly hit schoolchildren but noted that there has been a number of outbreaks in nursing homes.

Of those hospitalised with flu, 60% had the B strain that is not covered by the flu vaccine, although it does offer moderate protection against the virus.

Dr Kelleher said the flu season will continue to put pressure on acute hospitals in the coming weeks. It is now widespread across the country.

“There is another four to five weeks of activity before we get below the base level again,” he warned at a HSE media briefing in Dublin yesterday.

Director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory, Dr Cillian De Gascun, said their testing numbers were up 20%, compared to last year.

They had received a slightly smaller number of samples and there were a smaller number of positives. That would suggest that flu has peaked and starting to fall off, said Dr De Gascun.

“From a virus perspective, there is nothing that we haven’t seen before,” he said.

Dr Kelleher said the flu death rate appears similar to previous years at this stage.

“Directly, we would expect to see somewhere between 60 up to 110 deaths normally each year.

“I think we will be well within that number this year,” he said.

However, indirectly, the flu could be responsible for up to 400 deaths in cases where the person had an underlying health condition.

HSE national director responsible for the winter initiative, Damien McCallion, said flu is continuing to put significant pressure on acute hospitals.

The hospitals discharged patients to nursing homes, either for stepdown or long-term care but a number are no longer able to take new patients because of the flu outbreak.

Mr McCallion said there has been a 7% year-on-year increase in patients over 75 years of age coming into the emergency departments and being admitted.

There were 381 patients in emergency departments yesterday awaiting a hospital bed, a 2% increase on the same day last year, according to the HSE’s TrolleyGAR.

The HSE’s count also showed that 183 (48%) were waiting more than nine hours and 43 were waiting more than 24 hours.

There were 547 patients on trolleys and on wards in hospitals yesterday awaiting a bed, according to the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation.

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