While EU figures show lockdowns, mask-wearing, and social distancing were effective preventative measures against a virus that globally kills about 650,000 people a year, this year might be different. At the same time as countries have started to ease Covid restrictions, flu viruses have circulated in Europe at a higher-than-expected rate in December. This is according to a report by European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).
In that month, ECDC data shows the number of flu cases in European intensive care units (ICU) rose steadily to peak at 43 in the last week of the year.
While that is far below pre-pandemic levels, it is a serious increase compared to last year.
In the same period a year earlier, there was only one flu case in an ICU in the whole of December, according to ECDC data.
Now, the return of the virus could signal the start of an unusually long flu season.
Experts have warned that this might even last well into the summer.
ECDC’s top expert on influenza Pasi Penttinen told Reuters: “If we start to lift all measures, the big concern I have for influenza is that, because we have had such a long time of almost no circulation in the European population, maybe we will shift away from normal seasonal patterns.”
He added that scrapping strict Covid restrictions in the spring may prolong flu circulation far beyond the usual end of the European season, which is in May.
The ECDC report warned of a “twindemic” which could put excessive pressure on health systems already under intense pressure.
Data from the French health ministry last week revealed that three regions in France are facing a flu epidemic.
Now, the dominant flu strain circulating so far this year seems to be the H3 of the A virus.
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This made it harder for vaccine makers to predict which strain would be dominant in the coming flu season.
Vaccines Europe represents top vaccine-makers in Europe.
It acknowledged the strain selection was made harder by low flu circulation last year.
But it mentioned that there was not enough data yet to assess the effectiveness of this season’s jabs.
Flu vaccines are altered each year to make them as effective as possible against flu viruses, which are always changing.
The composition of flu jabs is decided six months before the flu season kicks in.
This is based on the circulation of viruses in the opposite hemisphere.