Some 270 people have been hospitalised with flu this winter, with 15 of these requiring care in intensive care units (ICUs), the HSE has said.
According to the HSE, flu season, which refers to the time during winter when there is an increase in people affected, usually begins in January. However this year, it began in mid-December, putting increased pressure on an already stretched health service.
So far, 270 people have been hospitalised and there have been 36 flu outbreaks - 32 in residential care facilities and four in acute hospitals.
"We are now seeing a major rise in people attending GPs and GP out-of-hours services with influenza like illnesses (ILI). The best protection for people from the flu virus is the flu vaccine, yet every year many people in at-risk groups fail to get vaccinated and so put themselves at risk of serious illness or even death. The vaccine reduces infection and associated illnesses and hospitalisation," commented the HSE's director of public health, Dr Kevin Kelleher.
He said that while flu activity is expected to peak over the next week or two, ‘increased influenza activity will continue for the next four to five weeks'.
He called on everyone in at-risk groups to make sure they are vaccinated, including healthcare workers.
"It is important that all those working in frontline healthcare protect themselves and help to prevent flu from spreading to vulnerable patients. Older and at-risk patients may not get sufficient protection from the vaccine themselves so people who care for them need to be vaccinated. The flu vaccine is available free to healthcare workers from their local occupational health department," Dr Kelleher noted.
The seasonal flu vaccine is available from GPs and pharmacists. At-risk groups include healthcare workers, those over the age of 65, pregnant women and people with chronic diseases that require regular check-ups, such as chronic heart disease and diabetes.
"Flu is very infectious and can cause potentially serious illnesses. The flu vaccine cannot give you the flu as it does not contain any live flu virus and all those at risk who have not been vaccinated should get the vaccine as soon as possible to make sure that they are protected," Dr Kelleher emphasised.
The HSE added that most people who get the flu are able to be looked after at home. Rest, fluids and over-the-counter medication are all recommended. However, if symptoms persist or there is a significant deterioration in symptoms, the person should contact their GP by phone to get advice, rather than attending the GP surgery.
For more practical advice on what to do if you have flu, click here
For more information on the flu vaccine, click here