Epidemiology and Infection

Review Article

Lessons from 40 years' surveillance of influenza in England and Wales

D. M. FLEMINGa1 c1 and A. J. ELLIOTa1

a1 Birmingham Research Unit of the Royal College of General Practitioners, Harborne, Birmingham, UK

Abstract

The influenza virus continues to pose a significant threat to public health throughout the world. Current avian influenza outbreaks in humans have heightened the need for improved surveillance and planning. Despite recent advances in the development of vaccines and antiviral drugs, seasonal epidemics of influenza continue to contribute significantly to general practitioner workloads, emergency hospital admissions, and deaths. In this paper we review data produced by the Royal College of General Practitioners Weekly Returns Service, a sentinel general practice surveillance network that has been in operation for over 40 years in England and Wales. We show a gradually decreasing trend in the incidence of respiratory illness associated with influenza virus infection (influenza-like illness; ILI) over the 40 years and speculate that there are limits to how far an existing virus can drift and yet produce substantial new epidemics. The burden of disease caused by influenza presented to general practitioners varies considerably by age in each winter. In the pandemic winter of 1969/70 persons of working age were most severely affected; in the serious influenza epidemic of 1989/90 children were particularly affected; in the millennium winter (in which the NHS was severely stretched) ILI was almost confined to adults, especially the elderly. Serious confounders from infections due to respiratory syncytial virus are discussed, especially in relation to assessing influenza vaccine effectiveness. Increasing pressure on hospitals during epidemic periods are shown and are attributed to changing patterns of health-care delivery.

(Accepted October 24 2007)

(Online publication November 30 2007)

Correspondence:

c1 Author for correspondence: Dr D. M. Fleming, Birmingham Research Unit of the Royal College of General Practitioners, Lordswood House, 54 Lordswood Road, Harborne, Birmingham, B17 9DB, UK. (Email: dfleming@rcgpbhamresunit.nhs.uk)

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