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EU health agency warns of severe winter flu season for elderly

The upcoming influenza season in Europe could be severe for the elderly and those with weak immunity, the EU's public health agency warned on Tuesday, adding that it could put a greater burden on health systems already strained by the COVID-19 situation.

The main reported subtype of the influenza virus seen in the EU and European Economic Area (EEA) disproportionately affects older people and is associated with lower vaccine effectiveness, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said.

"The early detections of the A (H3N2) subtype are an indication that the upcoming flu season could be severe, although we cannot know for sure what the upcoming flu season will look like," said Pasi Penttinen, ECDC's head of influenza program.

Penttinen urged health workers to get vaccinated against both COVID-19 and the flu before winter and added that physical distancing and hygiene measures are important for all, especially those working in nursing homes and healthcare settings.

About 20% of the population catches the flu each year. The elderly, pregnant women, and those with chronic medical conditions are most at risk of severe complications by influenza, the ECDC said.

The influenza onset is above the seasonal threshold in Croatia, which is unusually early, given the overall number of influenza detections in the majority of EU/EEA countries remains low, the agency added.