Figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) indicate that the number of excess deaths in England and Wales increased significantly from last year.
Indeed, the estimated 43,900 such deaths represented the highest number recorded since 1999.
The report produced by the ONS indicates that most of the deaths involve people aged over 75.
One of the primary contributors to these figures was the flu virus.
It was regrettable with regard to this issue that the influenza vaccine produced in 2015 was significantly less effective than those manufactured during previous years.
Another notable aspect of the figures is the fact that there were more deaths in women than men.
Commenting on the provisional statistics, Claudia Wells, at the ONS, acknowledged the importance of the flu virus in the lofty number of deaths: “A major cause behind the rise was the flu virus, with estimates showing that the flu vaccine was not as effective this winter compared to previous years. While the cold temperature is a factor, most of last winter was warmer than average.”
The report indicated that respiratory illnesses were the cause of death in around 40 per cent of all winter cases recorded.
In particular, experts suggest that the strain of flu which circulated during 2014 had a significant impact on older people.
This resulted in a large number of outbreaks in care homes, which led to a larger than usual number of admissions to intensive care.
It was noted some months back that the 34 per cent effectiveness of the flu vaccine for 2015 was likely to lead to an excess number of deaths over the winter period.
And Caroline Abrahams of Age UK emphasised that “behind the figures are many individual tragedies of older people dying needlessly before their time.”
However, it is notable that the large number of winter deaths was not unique to that United Kingdom.
The Department of Health suggested that as many as 15 other nations in Europe also suffered their largest number of winter deaths in the 21st century.
Commenting on the issue, the Department suggested that the cold weather plan that they had put in place had significantly reduced the number of cold-related illnesses and deaths.
Speaking on behalf of the Department of Health, a spokesperson stated: “Excess winter deaths can be due to a number of causes including cold snaps, flu and other respiratory infections. Flu is serious, causing severe illness and deaths in winter. It is vital that older people, pregnant women and those with a health condition get their flu jab this winter.
A new initiative intended to ensure that flu bugs are tackled effectively this winter has been launched by Public Health England and NHS England.
This drive to improve public health will begin with a nationwide flu vaccination program for children.
In the coming year, this is intended to address 3 million young people aged between two and six years of age, with the program extended to children in the first and second year of school.
The NHS has dubbed the campaign “Stay Well this Winter”.
For the first time in the history of healthcare in England, it will be possible for all of the youngest primary school children to receive the free nasal spray vaccine.
This will make the latest attempts to address influenza the largest of this kind ever to be carried out in England, involving children in 17,000 schools across the country.
In common with previous years, the adult flu vaccine will also be offered for free to groups of people in particular risk of infection and complication from flu.
These groups are pregnant women, members of society aged over 65, those with long-term health conditions, and those responsible for the daily care of another person(s).
As well as protecting the public against flu, the NHS Stay Well This Winter campaign will urge people over 65 or those with long-term health conditions, such as diabetes, stroke, heart disease or respiratory illness, to prepare for winter with advice on how to ward off common illnesses.
The NHS is urging people of all ages to get a flu jab if they are eligible. But the health authorities have also issued several other pieces of advice to follow this winter.
First on the list is ensuring that people keep warm at all times is important. Heating homes to at least 18°C should be considered essential.
The NHS also recommends that if people begin to feel unwell then help should be sought from pharmacists immediately.
Finally, the health service is encouraging people to ensure that they are well stocked up with prescription medicines over the Christmas period, and also to keep a look out for other people who may require assistance.
Commenting on this extensive new campaign, Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, was keen to emphasise its importance.
“Let me be crystal clear – flu kills. For many people it is an unpleasant illness but for the most vulnerable in society – small children, the elderly, those with long-term health problems and for pregnant women – it is extremely dangerous and can be lethal.
“Getting the vaccine is the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones from catching flu and I would urge everyone who is offered the vaccine free on the NHS to get vaccinated,” Davies asserted.
Flu generally leads to around 10,000 deaths per week over the winter period in the UK.
The last time the flu season led to an epidemic was 1999/2000, when an average of 16,367 deaths a week occurred.
Over 100 MPs and peers attended Westminster Flu Day today; a flu vaccine clinic held in the House of Commons with the intention of encouraging constituents to acquire this season’s flu vaccination.
This form of medication is currently part of the government’s recommendations on tackling the virus.
Parliamentarians who are not be eligible for a free seasonal flu vaccination on the NHS will make a £10 donation to the Carers Trust; the equivalent cost of a private vaccination.
Although there is still a general feeling among the public that influenza is a mild illness, the reality is that flu continues to place a considerable burden on NHS resources on an annual basis.
The timing, extent and severity of influenza seasons are unpredictable and intermittent epidemics can cause significant illness and death.
In an attempt to tackle flu, the World Health Organisation has set a target of 75 percent for the uptake of flu vaccinations in those aged over 65.
However, the current acceptance rate in England is slightly below this figure, with 72.8 percent having got the flu vaccine last year.
The Department of Health particularly wants to improve the uptake rates for those people under 65 years of age with clinical conditions which put them more at risk from the effects of flu.
Among these individuals, the uptake rate currently stands at 50.3 percent.
In addition, certain particularly vulnerable groups are also a priority of such awareness campaigns.
Only 44.1 percent of pregnant women acquired the flu vaccination last year, and the figure was only slightly higher for healthcare workers at 54.9 percent.
In addition, 38.5 percent of two year olds, 41.3 percent of three year olds and 32.9 percent of four year olds were vaccinated in England in 2014/15.
Jane Ellison MP, Public Health Minister, commented: “This is a great opportunity for MPs and Peers to find out who in their communities is eligible for the vaccination and encourage greater take up. MPs can play a really helpful role in raising awareness in their constituencies.”
Chris Skidmore MP, hosting the event in Parliament, was keen to emphasise the worth of this initiative: “MPs really value the opportunity to learn about the importance of flu vaccination at Westminster Flu Day. I would urge everyone who is entitled to a free flu vaccination to go and get vaccinated this winter.”
Virginia Acha, ABPI Executive Director of Research, Medical and Innovation, added: “Speaking for the ABPI and all of our members, we are really pleased to support Westminster Flu Day and we hope that this campaign helps to advance awareness and uptake of the flu vaccines to deliver better health for our society, particular for those individuals most at risk.”
Westminster Flu Day is an established event in the Parliamentary calendar. It is sponsored by the ABPI Vaccine Group in partnership with the Royal College of GPs and Carers Trust and with the support of the Department of Health and Public Health England.
The Westminster Flu Day concept is supported by the following companies:
• Novartis Influenza Vaccines
According to a report released by Public Health England, the flu jab released last winter was effective in 34 per cent of cases.
This represented a significant improvement on the early trend in the season, but can overall be considered a sub-par result.
At one stage, it was observed that the vaccine was protecting around three out of every 100 immunised people developing symptoms.
However, according to the report, a shift in the dominant circulating strains of flu saw the efficacy of the vaccination improve significantly.
Nonetheless, considering that the flu jab was still ineffective in two out of three cases, there will still be question marks regarding the efficacy of this treatment.
Many campaigners have called into question the need for vaccination against influenza, considering that it is a relatively benign virus in healthy people.
And these latest figures certainly won’t dampen down any such criticism.
Commenting on the figures, Professor Paul Cosford, from Public Health England, conceded that its effectiveness had been “slightly lower” than usual.
In defence of the flu jab, it should be noted that the virus mutates very rapidly, ensuring that manufacturing and distributing an effective vaccine is extremely challenging.
This also explains the reasoning behind a new jab being released every year.
Considering the fact that vaccinations can have side-effects, the relatively disappointing figures could have a negative impact on uptake of the virus in 2015.
Officials are apparently concerned that public opinion could be swayed against the flu jab by the somewhat poor performance of the vaccination in 2014.
Nonetheless, Professor Cosford underlined his particular belief that vaccination remained an effective measure against the flu.
“Whilst it’s not possible to fully predict the strains that will circulate in any given season, flu vaccination remains the best protection we have against an unpredictable virus which can cause severe illness and deaths each year among at-risk groups. These include older people, pregnant women and those with a health condition, even one that is well-managed,” Cosford asserted.
According to the World Health Organisation, flu vaccines can typically be expected to work in roughly 50 per cent of cases.
But the winter past featured one particular strain of flu that mutated so dramatically that the vaccine proffered presented much lower levels of protection than would usually be expected.
An EU report in 2014 suggested that pensioners in Britain are more likely to die of flu or pneumonia than anywhere else in Europe, and that 80 Britons die from the diseases every day.