Flu outbreak gets worse as 20,000 visit GP with illness
Flu levels have trebled in the past week, leaving 20,000 infected patients swamping GP surgeries and hundreds more being admitted to overcrowded hospitals.
The spike - so far more severe than last winter's flu outbreak - has now seen more adults than children struck down by illness.
Children were the main victims of the outbreak immediately after Christmas.
The potentially deadly infection is now sweeping through adult age groups as people return to work.
Pensioners are also particularly at risk, the HSE warned yesterday, and there is a high rate among babies under 12 months old.
The flu could peak next week, or might already have reached its worst level, said Dr Kevin Kelleher, the HSE's head of public health.
He added that it will continue to circulate at intense levels for up to six more weeks.
"We have probably still got another four to six weeks of flu activity not dissimilar to what we have experienced in the last three or four weeks," he said.
"We have reached a moderate level. We have not yet got to a high level, which in the last 17-18 years we have breached only four times."
Flu is now widespread in all parts of the country except the midlands.
Flu caused 367 patients to be hospitalised last week in eight hospitals across the regions used as infection watchdogs by the HSE.
The real toll was much higher, since these figures do not include the seriously-ill patients who had to be isolated in another 40 hospitals.
The severity of the illness has led to 28 patients being admitted to critical care so far.
Dr Kelleher said officially the number of deaths from flu remains at fewer than 10, but it is likely flu has claimed more lives and confirming other deaths will take time.
Last winter there were 90 confirmed deaths from flu.
The outbreak has not reached the level of the so-called swine flu pandemic of seven years ago.
Dr Cillian de Gascun, head of the National Virus Reference Laboratory, confirmed that the H3N2 strain - known as Australian flu - has been overtaken by a B strain.
This influenza B Yamagata strain is not covered by the flu vaccine - but the jab may provide some cross-cover, he said.
Public health officials are continuing to advise people to get the flu vaccine since it is the best available protection against the highly contagious virus.
Dr Kelleher said the HSE has no stocks of a vaccine to provide better protection against the Yamagata strain.
Meanwhile, flu-hit hospitals suffered another day of overcrowding yesterday, as 544 patients endured further gruelling delays on trolleys.