The DH said the increase in flu activity means there is now a ‘substantial likelihood’ that people presenting with influenza-like symptoms are indeed infected with the virus.
The announcement comes after PHE noticed significant increases in several key flu indicators – most notably the number of confirmed hospitalisations in young adults.
Surveillance data from the UK and Europe point to the strain A(H1N1)pdm09 being the main seasonal virus – which PHE confirmed is well-matched to the strain used in this year’s vaccine.
This follows from last year, when the dominant strain drifted so significantly from the strain in the vaccine that just 3% of patients received protection from it.
Evidence from previous flu seasons that have been dominated by the same A(H1N1)pdm09 strains suggests that GPs should particularly watch out for children, pregnant women, and adults with long-term conditions being affected.
In a letter to healthcare professionals, CMO Professor Dame Sally Davies said GPs should consider antiviral treatment for patients who may be ‘at risk of severe illness and/or complications from influenza if not treated’, as per NICE guidelines, regardless of whether they are part of an ‘at risk’ group.
Liquid forms of antivirals should only be prescribed to children under the age of one, she said. All other patients should be given capsules to ensure a continuity of supplies to this vulnerable age group. Children over the age of one and adults who cannot swallow capsules should be advised to empty the contents of their capsules into a sugary diluent.
‘The increase in flu activity also highlights the need to ensure maximum protection through vaccination,’ Dame Sally said. ‘Please encourage as many people in the "at risk" qualifying groups to get the flu vaccination.
‘It is also important that frontline healthcare workers, including GPs, nurses, pharmacists, and their teams, minimise the risk of transmitting flu by getting vaccinated themselves and observing strict infection control measures.
‘This season, 44% of healthcare workers have been vaccinated up to end of November 2015. Please vaccinate yourself as this will help protect those in your care, as well as you and your family.’
Dr Richard Pebody, flu expert for PHE said: ‘It’s not too late for children and people in "at risk" groups to get the vaccine for free, and this remains important now that flu is circulating.’