Flu at epidemic levels, as number of new cases soars

More than 1.2 million influenza vaccinations have been administered as the illness soars to epidemic levels.

The last weekly ESR influenza report shows 319 suspected cases were reported in the week to Sunday, up from 184 in the previous week.

It is the biggest one-week rise this year and puts the flu season on similar trajectory to epidemic seasons of 2010 and 2012, which proved fatal for some. Already flu rates were double what they were this time last year.

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman said the target of 1.2m immunisations had been reached, for the third year in a row.

The free flu shots programme would be extended until the end of August, because of the late spike in cases.

“This winter there are higher rates of influenza in New Zealand than the last two years, which have been relatively mild.

“With influenza now at relatively high levels in our communities, it’s still not too late to get vaccinated,” Coleman said.

The Tairawhiti district, covering Gisborne and the East Coast, was the worst hit part of the country, followed by Whanganui and South Canterbury.

Influenza B strains were the most common, followed by unspecified A strains, and the A(H3N2) strain. Influenza B and H3N2 were both covered in the vaccination.

Tairawhiti DHB medical officer of health Bruce Duncan said the latest figures were from only one week and there was no cause for alarm at this stage.

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“We are in the middle of the influenza season and we’ve definitely got it in our area. You really need to look at a trend over a period of time because relatively small changes in numbers for a small area can have quite a dramatic impact on rates, so it would be impossible to say we were suddenly experiencing massively high rates on the basis of the numbers over a week.”

In the previous two weeks, Tairawhiti had lower rates than other DHBs.

Having said that, the rate was trending higher than normal, he said.

“The national figures are looking similar to 2010. Last year was a relatively quiet year. It looks like it’s going to be a busy season nationally for flu-like illnesses. I don’t expect us to be any different.”


The vaccine is free for people aged 65 years and over, pregnant women, those with long-term conditions such as severe asthma, and for children under 5 who have been hospitalised for a respiratory illness.
It is particularly recommended for pregnant women, as the vaccine offers protection to both mother and baby. People with Down syndrome and those with cochlear implants are also now eligible for the vaccine.
It can be bought from general practices and many pharmacies for those who are not eligible for a free shot.
For free health advice, call Healthline 0800 611 116.
For advice about flu immunisation, visit http://www.fightflu.co.nz or text FLU to 515.