Higher amounts of respiratory virus cases

Malta is experiencing an increase in respiratory viruses, which is higher when compared to pre-COVID winters

File photo
File photo

Malta is experiencing an increase in respiratory viruses, which is higher when compared to pre-COVID winters.

The seasonal cycle of respiratory viruses is a well-known phenomenon where epidemics of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and influenza are present in Europe with clear annual seasonality.

And while the Health Ministry said RSV infections are not unusual at this time of year, Malta –  like other European countries – is experiencing higher RSV activity that began earlier than in pre-COVID-19 seasons.

Influenza this season has shown a return in spread, after a low-level of circulation following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. This can be attributed to the number of restrictions like the wearing of a face-mask, limits on the number of people at gatherings, and sanitisation points at establishments.

A European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control report released in December showed that based on historical RSV surveillance data from 15 EU/EEA countries, all RSV seasons from 2010/11 to 2015/16 had a similar timing and epidemic course across Europe, with some variation within and between countries.

Introduction of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPI) to control COVID-19 circulation caused a change to the regular seasonality of RSV activity in Europe. Soon after NPIs were introduced, in February-March 2020, the circulation of RSV stopped, and in the 2020/2021 season the RSV epidemics began several weeks later than usual, if at all. In the summer of 2021, out-of-season RSV activity was observed in several countries, however, the reasons have not been fully explored.

Replying to questions by MaltaToday, the ministry said the COVID situation is still being monitored by the health authorities. “People admitted to Mater Dei Hospital are still being swabbed and people can still get swabbed in the community,” a spokesperson said.

Questions into whether people should start wearing masks when in public were not answered by the health ministry, who instead quoted legislation in saying that masks should be worn in hospitals, medical clinics and old people’s homes.

The health ministry said that since the beginning of the current vaccination campaign, 110,000 persons have been vaccinated with the flu or Omicron vaccine. It did not provide a breakdown of the administered vaccines.

Malta is not the only country to experience an early rise in influenza cases, with hospital admissions due to the illness rising across the continent since October. Countries like Germany and Slovakia had already declared an epidemic by late December, with Belgium following suit in the first week of January.

Health chiefs in the UK have also said the NHS was suffering a “twindemic” as hospital admissions for flu have increased and cases of COVID have risen.

The number of patients in hospital with flu have risen sevenfold in a month, according to latest data in the UK.

“The flu has already been back for some time in our country, but now all the criteria are met to be able to talk about a flu epidemic,” Belgium’s public health institute said, explaining that a “clear increase” in the number of influenza cases had been observed among general practitioners as well as in laboratory tests and hospitalizations.