What you need to know about the deadly flu epidemic in France

French hospitals are at breaking point due to a particularly virulent strain of flu that has spread across the country. Here's what you need to know about what's going on.

What you need to know about the deadly flu epidemic in France
Photo: Sentinelles-Inserm

So just how bad is the flu epidemic?

It’s bad enough for France’s Health Minister Marisol Touraine (see pic below) to call on hospitals across the country to delay non-urgent operations in order to free up hospital beds for patients suffering from flu.

Hospitals were also told to enact emergency plans that allow them to make more beds available.

The move comes after Touraine admitted hospital emergency wards in the country were at breaking point.


“Emergency services are particularly in demand and they're at the limits of their capabilities,” she said at a press conference on Tuesday. 

Touraine also warned that the “toll would be heavy” given the high number of people suffering from the outbreak.

According to the monitoring site Sentinelles-Inserm, nearly 800,000 people in France have been to consult a GP about flu-like symptoms in the last four weeks. Some 600 have been admitted to intensive care in hospital and 52 have died.

Around the country some 142 hospitals out of a total of 840 were at “stress level”.

Why is it so bad?

This year’s flu is a virulent strain of the virus type A (H3N2), a cousin of a flu that contributed to 18,000 deaths in France two years ago, public health authorities say. Last year’s outbreak of type B flu was far less deadly.

“The H3N2 is a particularly dangerous virus for vulnerable people,” said Daniel Levy-Bruhl, from the health body Santé Public France.

The strain could make existing heart or respiratory conditions worse for those with existing health problems.

This winter’s strain is continuing to take lives of mainly elderly people.

At the weekend, the health ministry ordered a probe into the deaths of 13 residents of a nursing home in the eastern city of Lyon late last month.

The Department of Health has said that 11 million people are vulnerable, particularly pregnant women, those over the age of 65, and the chronically ill.


Is it worse than previous years?

At the moment it’s not hit as hard as the outbreak in 2014/2015 when some 2.9 million people were struck down with flu and the virus contributed to the deaths of 18,000. But authorities fear it is heading that way.

What has made matters worse is that the outbreak hit France a month earlier than normal. In December the health ministry said the epidemic has hit around a month earlier than it did in the past two years, and reportedly the earliest it has come in the last ten years.

And it hit hard. A December 21st bulletin from the Ministry of Health noted that nine out of France's 13 regions were already at “epidemic” level.

“As soon as we identified the virus we knew the impact would be serious,” said Daniel Levy Bruhl from Santé Publique France, adding that the number of people hit is no more than in an average year, but the number of people hospitalized is far higher.

Are certain regions worse than others?

The outbreak began in Brittany and the greater Paris region in December, before spreading around the country.

The latest reports say it is easing off in several regions, including Hauts de France in the north, Brittany in the west, Auvergne-Rhône Alpes in the centre and Occitanie in the south west.

The number of flu cases were also dropping in Burgundy, according to a report in Le Monde.

But the Paris region continues to be badly hit with hospitals talking of an “exceptional saturation”.

“We’re cracking, everywhere,” said one hospital staff union chief in Paris.

The latest map below from the website Sentinelles-Inserm shows the worst hit areas.

So is the worst behind us?

Not really. According to predictions from health officials the flu epidemic will peak at some point next week, although in some regions it may have peaked already.

What is France doing about it?

Apart from the emergency measures being taken at hospitals, the government is urging members of the public to take their own preventative measures.

It recommended that elderly and vulnerable people in particular seek out vaccinations from their local health care professionals. 

The department said that people should take extra measures to ensure they stay healthy, including: Drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated, washing your hands regularly, avoid going out if possible, throwing used tissues in a closed bin. 

There is also talk now of forcing health professional to have flu vaccination, currently only around 25 to 40 percent of staff have taken up the option so far.

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French pharmacies run out of flu vaccines as demand soars

The annual flu vaccination campaign in France was only launched last week, yet already pharmacies across the country have sold out of doses.

French pharmacies run out of flu vaccines as demand soars
High risk groups such as the elderly are now being prioritised. Photo: AFP

Desperate to avoid hospitals facing the combined pressure of flu patients and Covid-19 patients this winter, the French government launched a greatly expanded flu vaccination programme this year, urging anyone in a risk group to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

But demand has far outstripped what the government anticipated, and just a week after the campaign was launched on October 13th, pharmacies across the country are declaring rupture de stock (sold out) of vaccines. Around 60 percent of pharmacies are reporting shortages of flu vaccine.

Gilles Bonnefond, president of the pharmacists union l' Union des syndicats de pharmaciens d'officine (USPO) told France Info: “We have already vaccinated nearly five million people in less than five days.

“This is almost half of what was done all last year during the entire vaccination campaign.”

In 2019 the flu vaccine campaign was expanded and pharmacies were allowed to administer the vaccine for the first time – that year saw just over 10 million people vaccinated, roughly one sixth of the population.

This year, however, take-up has skyrocketed due to the Covid-19 threat.

“Last week, we sold 51 percent of the doses that we sold all last year”, Pascal Fontaine, purchasing director of the Pharmacie Lafayette group, added.

The government is now asking people who do not fall into priority groups to delay their vaccination so that the most high-risk groups can be protected first.

Anyone who is registered in the French health system and falls into a high risk group is usually contacted by their doctor or assurance maladie inviting them to be vaccinated, with a code to present for a free vaccine.

High risk groups are:

  • Over 65s
  • People with chronic or long-term health conditions
  • People with a BMI of 40 or over
  • Pregnant women
  • People who live with those who cannot be vaccinated, including babies and those who are immunocompromised

However anyone who wants to be vaccinated can be, either by making an appointment with their GP or visiting a pharmacy. For those people the vaccine is free but they will have to pay the standard medical appointment charge for it to be administered.

It is these people that the government is asking to delay getting their jab.


The government purchased 30 percent more doses than usual this year, but will now have to order more to cover the higher-than-expected demand.

A spokesman for the health ministry said: “We urge people who do not present a particular risk and who would like to be vaccinated, to postpone their vaccination until early December.”

For more details on high risk groups and the payment system, click here.