A flu epidemic could strike the UK this winter after Australia battles an early outbreak of the virus, health experts have warned.
The latest figures show there have been nearly 94,000 confirmed cases of flu in Australia so far this year, compared with just 12,000 in total in 2018.
Of those cases, 147 people have died from the virus in the first five months of the year, while at the same point in 2018, the number of deaths was 23.
'Very scary indeed'
The flu season in the UK tends to mirror that in Australia, prompting fears the latest strain could reach the country this winter.
While the high figures could just show an early-peaking outbreak, rather than an epidemic, the numbers have sparked concern.
They’re currently on par with cases normally seen in July and August at the height of the Australian flu season, according to the Healthcare Service Journal.
Tak Hassan, of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said the figures looked "very scary indeed" and called for the NHS to take action now to prepare for a possible epidemic.
He said: "We struggled last year [in A&Es] in incredibly benevolent circumstances. I am not sure that is going to happen this year.
"It is very important that we prepare. Perhaps we need to start vaccination early and set aside some money."
Dr Hassan stressed work was needed to improve vaccination uptake for healthcare workers and "at risk" groups, as well as robust planning for increased bed capacity to avoid people being left waiting in hospital corridors.
"NHS England will really need to focus on how to provide clear ring-fenced extra resources for these people," he said.
Public Health England is urging people to get vaccinated against the virus this autumn (Photo: Shutterstock)
'A worrying signal'
The surge in cases in Australia could be due to the fact that three strains of the virus are in circulation - influenza A (H1N1), influenza A (H3N2) and influenza B - and immunity could be lower due to a quiet flu season last year.
The current high rates could be a signal of what is to come for the UK this winter, with experts warning health care services to put resilience plans in place as early as possible.
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive at NHS providers said: "The spike in flu we are seeing in Australia could be a worrying signal of what is to come for health and care services this winter.
"Planning for vaccinations is based on what happens in the southern hemisphere.
"Based on what we are seeing we will need to make sure plans are put in place early and as resilient as they can be.
"This highlights the importance of planning for winter.
"Trusts are already working hard to improve vaccination uptake among staff, and will strive to improve this further.
"We must get immunisation rates as high as possible. We must also get our resilience plans in place as early as we can."
How to get a flu jab
Public Health England (PHE) said it is monitoring flu activity in Australia and urged people to get vaccinated against the virus this autumn.
Richard Pedbody, head of flu surveillance at PHE, said: "We are monitoring closely to see if the high levels of activity continue or if this early activity represents the peak for this season.
"What we're seeing in Australia highlights the importance of anyone who is eligible taking up the offer of the flu vaccine when the campaign launches later in the autumn.
"This includes front line health and social care workers to help protect the people they care for."
You can have the NHS flu vaccine at:
your GP surgerya local pharmacy offering the serviceyour midwifery service if they offer it for pregnant women
Some community pharmacies now offer flu vaccinations to adults at risk of flu, including pregnant women, people aged 65 and over, people with long-term health conditions and carers.