A leading World Health Organization (WHO) official on Tuesday called for vigilance in the face of rising cases of respiratory diseases in Europe.
Hans Henri P. Kluge, the WHO’s regional director for Europe, noted a surge in influenza infections and hospitalizations at a press conference in Copenhagen, and urged health systems to prepare for a likely increase in cases in the coming weeks.
The Netherlands is currently grappling with an upswing in respiratory infections, according to the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM).
Various pathogens, including COVID-19, influenza virus and seasonal coronavirus are “now common” among the population, the RIVM said in its most recent update as of Jan. 10.
The number of individuals reporting flu-like symptoms is on the rise, it said. In the past week, 44 out of 100,000 people sought medical attention for such complaints, marking a notable increase from the previous week’s 27 per 100,000.
Recent data also reveals a surge in influenza virus cases, with almost 35 percent of samples from individuals reporting flu-like symptoms testing positive, compared to the previous week’s 13 percent, according to RIVM.
In Italy, hospitals were under intense pressure due to the worst flu wave the country had witnessed in at least 15 years, Italian health professionals warned last Friday.
Admissions to emergency rooms increased by 20 percent to 30 percent last week, mainly due to serious flu cases, according to the Italian Federation of Health Authorities and Hospitals (FIASO).
In another development, the Spanish government reimposed the mandatory use of facemasks in hospitals and health centers as of Jan. 10, following a sharp rise in COVID-19 and flu infections since the start of the new year.
Spain reported a sharp rise in respiratory illnesses, with the infection rate soaring to over 952 cases per 100,000 inhabitants. The peak of infections was set to arrive, Health Minister Monica Garcia warned last week.
At a press conference in Copenhagen Tuesday, Kluge said that vulnerable populations must be kept up-to-date with their COVID-19 and influenza vaccinations. He also underlined the critical success of COVID-19 vaccines since their introduction in December 2020.
“A new study led by WHO Europe has found that at least 1.4 million lives in our region were saved thanks to safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines,” said the WHO official.
The vaccines have been particularly effective for those over 60, who accounted for more than 90 percent of lives saved, according to the WHO study.
Since the vaccine rollout began in December 2020, there has been a 57 percent reduction in COVID-19 deaths across the WHO European Region, with the first booster doses alone saving an estimated 700,000 lives.
Nevertheless, Kluge expressed concern over the rapid spread of COVID-19 JN.1 variant, which has become the dominant strain.
Despite a lack of evidence suggesting increased severity, the variant’s unpredictability requires continuous monitoring, Kluge said.
“Thirteen countries in our region did not report any data on respiratory viruses last week. Surveillance remains our first line of defense to monitor unpredictable respiratory pathogens, be it mutations or new viruses,” he added.