THE worst flu season in five years has hit the Hunter, but flu vaccines will not fully protect people after the latest strain of the virus mutated.
Hunter New England Health said this year’s flu season closely resembled the 2007 pandemic and emergency departments were being kept busy with patients with influenza, pneumonia and other winter bugs.
The strain of influenza virus responsible is known as H3N2 and has replaced the previously dominant H1N1 virus.
Public health physician David Durrheim said the H3N2 strain had changed its genetic characteristics since this year’s flu vaccines were developed and was only protecting people in part.
‘‘The vaccine provides protection but it’s not quite as good at protection as a perfect matching strain,’’ he said.
‘‘The people who are vaccinated are getting some influenza, but they’re not getting as sick. It’s not protecting all of the people fully.’’
Dr Durrheim said the current pandemic was definitely worse than last year when many people had either been vaccinated or become immune to H1N1 because it had been circulating for some years.
The University of Newcastle’s FluTracker shows rates of flu symptoms have almost doubled since the start of May. Flu season had also started about four weeks early this year.
It has been sweeping through the region since the start of July, ahead of its usual peak in August.
Dr Durrheim said Hunter New England Health’s emergency departments, particularly in Newcastle and Lower Hunter, had been very busy.
‘‘We have had a small number of people in intensive care since the onset of flu season,’’ he said.
‘‘We would expect deaths in particular among those who are vulnerable.’’
Dr Durrheim encouraged vulnerable groups including pregnant women, the chronically ill and indigenous people to get vaccinated.
He said people should stay home from work or school if experiencing flu-like symptoms.