The British homeland has experienced a rare event during a pandemic: Northern England has experienced a new normal.
Doctors at Britain’s National Health Service wrote an article for The Lancet this week describing some of the symptoms they have observed during the largest flu outbreak since the winter of 1968-69. (The seasonal flu causes some illness in the region every year, but usually only in London.)
The circumstances are different from the previous pandemic, according to The British Medical Journal, so the rise of flu cases is unprecedented. In recent years, the flu has grown in both severity and frequency in the UK. The number of people sickened by the flu in the first nine months of 2018 has nearly matched the number of total flu cases seen in the whole of the 2014-15 season.
When the flu epidemics of 1968-69 and 2014-15 occurred, Britain wasn’t prepared. Though the European Union requires member states to stockpile antiviral drugs, the UK government didn’t require such planning until 2008, nearly 30 years after the 1968-69 pandemic, which was the most deadly flu of modern times.
Though there are several antiviral drugs in the UK’s stockpiles, not all are effective against influenza strains that commonly cross borders.
The difference, doctors believe, is that humans now have an efficient means of combating the flu: the flu vaccine.
UK doctors said an increase in the percentage of those with influenza associated with “severe, high-impact illness” indicates the effectiveness of the vaccination. In the early days of the outbreak, physicians were “deeply concerned about severe pediatric complications and deaths from influenza,” doctors write. “Today we are confident that vaccination with a standard flu vaccine results in a very strong level of protection against those strains presenting in the current season.”
During the previous two flu epidemics, the number of illnesses rose steadily by mid-February, according to The BMJ. For the second most recent outbreak, the pattern is more surprising:
February 25, 2018: 393,463
April 6, 2018: 407,350
April 15, 2018: 383,187
April 27, 2018: 372,716
May 17, 2018: 357,178
To put that number in perspective, 10,693 British children were admitted to hospitals from the beginning of February until last Wednesday. (By comparison, 50,100 were hospitalized during the winter of 2014-15.)