By Kate Kelland
LONDON (Reuters) - A surge in COVID-19 cases in Europe risks becoming a deadly double epidemic of flu and coronavirus infections, EU health officials warned on Thursday as they urged Europeans and their governments not to let their guard down.
"It is abundantly clear that this crisis is not behind us. We are at a decisive moment," the EU's commissioner for health, Stella Kyriakides, told a media briefing.
With winter approaching in the region, she warned of the risk of a potentially lethal "twindemic of COVID-19 and the flu" and urged governments to encourage people to get seasonal flu vaccines and adhere to social distancing measures to reduce transmission of the novel coronavirus.
"This might be our last chance to prevent a repeat of last spring," Kyriakides said.
Adults at high risk from flu are also most at risk from COVID-19. Research by scientists at Public Health England (PHE) released this week suggested the risk of death more than doubled for people who tested positive for both flu and COVID-19, compared to those with COVID-19 alone.
Seasonal flu viruses cause between 4 and 50 million infections each year across the European region - depending on whether the region experiences a severe or relatively mild flu season - and an estimated 15,000 to 70,000 Europeans die each year of causes linked to flu.
Kyriakides and Andrea Ammon, director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, which monitors disease across the European region, said there had been a worrying increase in COVID-19 cases since August, with some countries already seeing higher case numbers than during the March peak.
"This can partly be explained by improved testing strategies," Ammon said. "However, several countries appear to be now progressing again from limited local transmission towards sustained community transmission.
"The pandemic is far from over and we must not
drop our guard."
(Reporting by Kate Kelland, editing by Nick Macfie)