Cases of flu in Britain have doubled in the space of a week, official figures released today have shown.
Health bosses warn this winter’s influenza outbreak is now beginning to take hold, after weeks of little activity.
Cases have increased by 85 per cent within the space of a week in England, while there has been a 55 per cent jump in Wales.
While flu has risen by 139 per cent in Scotland and 50 per cent in Northern Ireland over the same time frame, data has revealed.
Nearly two million people are now showing signs of the flu, according to estimates as experts warn it could pile more pressure on a stretched NHS.
Health authorities across England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales monitor rates of flu in their own country.
They track the number of flu symptoms reported in GP consultations in a weekly report, published by Public Health England.
Each country sets its own criteria on what is an epidemic, based on how often flu symptoms are reported per 100,000 patients.
None of the home nations have yet to reach epidemic levels, however England and Wales have just crossed into the ‘low’ threshold.
‘Low’ is the second step on a five-point scale towards ‘very high’ – which is what officials consider epidemic levels.
Levels of influenza in Scotland and Northern Ireland remain at the first threshold of an epidemic – branded baseline.
Rates are at their worst since this year’s monitoring began in September and 41 people have died of the illness in the past three months.
PHE figures today showed the UK had a total of 60 flu diagnoses per 400,000 people last week, with the H1N1 strain (swine flu) being most prevalent.
This was a 76 per cent rise on the previous week – the final seven days of 2018 – when it was just 34 people per 400,000.
PHE said the rising cases means flu is having a ‘moderate impact’ on hospitals and their intensive care units.
A third of this season’s flu cases that required treatment in intensive care occurred last week – 205 of a total 666.
PHE is now urging eligible people to get vaccinated as figures show more than half of pregnant women and three in 10 over-65s have not had the jab.
Flu, although an inconvenience to fit and healthy people, can be serious and even deadly for the elderly, young children, and people with long-term illnesses.
‘The best form of protection against flu is to get the vaccine if you are eligible and to practice good respiratory and hand hygiene,’ said PHE’s Richard Pebody.
‘It isn’t too late to get the flu vaccine so make sure you take up the offer if you’re eligible, to protect yourself and vulnerable people around you.’
The latest PHE report estimates nearly three per cent of the population said they were suffering from flu-like illnesses last week.
Around 30.6 people per 1,000 reported suffering flu-like symptoms last week – the equivalent of 1.989million people across the UK.
The West Midlands, North East and North West England, and Yorkshire and the Humber are the worst affected, with a ‘medium intensity’ of cases.
The East Midlands, East of England, South West, South East and London are all less affected, with levels only at ‘low intensity’.
Individual regional figures are not available for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Epidemic levels, which vary from country to country, are based on the number of GP-consultations resulting in a flu diagnosis.
For England the rate is 115.6 per 100,000, for Scotland it is 348.9, for Northern Ireland 124.4, and 92.9 for Wales.