Flu on decline in UK but rising elsewhere in Europe
When has a flu outbreak peaked? You can only know this retrospectively, but it does seem that the worst of this winter's outbreak is behind us.
Figures from the Health Protection Agency (HPA) show GP consultations fell in England and Northern Ireland over the past week, with only a slight rise in Scotland.
The HPA also said the predominant strain in circulation is now influenza B, which has overtaken influenza H1N1 swine flu. Flu B tends to be milder than H1N1 (although it has caused some fatalities) and mostly affects children.
The number of people reported to have died from flu since October has risen to 338, up by 84 since last week. The HPA said: "The vast majority of the new deaths reported today did not occur in the past week - a substantial number will have occurred over the past six weeks, but due the verification process they have only been confirmed this week."
Of the 306 deaths for which there is information on age, 10 were under five, 14 were aged 5-14, 217 aged 15-64 and 65 were older than 64.
The HPA said where information is available on the fatal cases, 184 out of 252 (73%) were in a clinical 'at risk' group for vaccination. 82 out of 108 (76%) had not received their jab this season.
In the past week, the number of number of GP consultations in England has fallen to 40.7 per 100,000, down from 66.5 per 100,000 the previous week.
Professor John Watson, head of the respiratory diseases department at the HPA, said: "Our latest flu report suggests levels of flu are continuing to decline across the UK and we appear to be over the peak of activity.
"However flu is still circulating and it is important that people remember to practice good cough and hand hygiene such as covering your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough and sneeze, and then disposing of these as soon as possible to stop it spreading in the community."
But although flu may be on the decline in the UK, rates are rising elsewhere in Europe. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said flu is progressing from west to east across the continent, as in previous years.
Rates are increasing in Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Germany, Greece and Hungary. Professor Angus Nicoll, a flu expert at the ECDC said: "Countries should be looking at the experience of the UK and prepare for a surge of patients requiring higher level care." The ECDC said immunisation could prevent many fatalities. It has a useful one-stop shop giving information on flu and flu rates.