Over 250,000 will fall ill due to flu season, minister warns

The Health Department is stocking up on some 100,000 flu vaccines in a bid to get at least 85,000 people jabbed

Over 70,000 people were vaccinated in 2016
Over 70,000 people were vaccinated in 2016

Get ready for the flu jab, the doctor must see you now.

Over half the Maltese population, or at least 250,000, will fall ill as influenza season picks up next January, health minister Chris Fearne has warned.

Fearne’s stark warning was made in an intervention during parliamentary questions on Budget day, as he prepares to launch the government’s vaccination campaign tomorrow.

“It will be a harsh season and my appeal to everyone and especially those most at risk, is to get vaccinated,” Fearne said.

The Health Department is stocking up on some 100,000 vaccines in a bid to get at least 85,000 people jabbed, going well over the 70,000 who got the vaccine last year.

“The projection we have for Malta, based on scientific evidence from the southern hemisphere and varying temperatures, is that flu season will be quite strong. It will probably hit half of the island. 250,000 in winter will be hit by the flu, which is more than double last year’s, when we had 150,000 sick.”

Fearne said the figures will leave an impact on health services as well as on businesses, and said January will be particularly intense.

“We are taking steps now, starting vaccination with a first week focusing on children, the elderly, those living in institutions and with chronic diseases. Then we will turn to the general population,” the minister said.

Fearne said he would encourage relatives of elderly persons in homes, and those visiting flu patients in hospital to also get vaccinated at the hospital there and then.

“We have ordered 80,000 vaccines already and another 20,000 so that we can cover at least 85,000 people. The more they get vaccinated, the less the flu can spread.”

The World Health Organisation earlier this week published its first weekly report for the 2017-2018 flu season, with as expected, low activity reported by the 36 reporting countries in Europe.

Influenza viruses were detected sporadically both in sentinel and non-sentinel specimens, including hospitalised patients, with both influenza A and B type viruses being detected.

High levels of influenza activity continued to be reported in the temperate zone of the southern hemisphere.

Fearne made special mention of the A(H3N2) and influenza B viruses in Australia and New Zealand, where seasonal influenza activity continued at elevated levels. “The season there was very strong, with an incidence double that of last year. In Australia alone there were two-and-a-half times more sufferers than the previous year, and hospitals in these countries suffered to cope with the flu season.”

His warning is reflected in a report of the Sydney Morning Herald, saying the “shocker flu season” started early and peaked at record levels and has yet to be over. More than 180,000 flu cases were confirmed nationally by September, and over 2017 there were 288 influenza-related deaths reported in New South Wales.

Death by influenza usually targets the frail and elderly but it can also be fatal to a small proportion of otherwise healthy people.

Most flu-related deaths are not due to the influenza infection itself, but to secondary infections, most commonly pneumonia.

When bacteria in the throat and nose breaks through the damaged mucosal lining of the respiratory tract, it can go down the lungs or bloodstream, becoming harmful infections. The bacteria grows and replicates in the lungs, clogging them up.