HEALTH experts say people should not worry about the threat of a new flu virus which has claimed hundreds of lives in Australia.

The virulent Brisbane H3N2 strain is said to affect three times as many people as other forms of flu. In the Australian winter, which occurs during our summer months, more than 800 people died from related pneumonia, including several children.

Although the bug did not spread to Europe as feared, the World Health Organisation and vaccine manufacturers are guarding against it for the coming flu season.

Dr Adrian Dawson, public health director for Bournemouth and Poole, explained: "Nationally, there's a fairly sophisticated monitoring system for flu. It hit Australia last winter, so there was plenty of early warning for Europe. This strain is going to be part of the new flu vaccine for this coming winter."

A free flu jab is offered on the NHS to everyone over 65, carers, care homes residents and people with chronic conditions like heart disease and asthma.

Dr Dawson said people who qualify would be invited to attend their GP surgery in the coming weeks.

Prof Bruno Lina, head of the National Influenza Centre in France, said: "The upcoming season is notable in the sense that among the three new vaccine strains, there is one that has proved to be very virulent in Australia. This further reinforces the importance to comply with health authorities' recommendation for vaccination."

Symptoms can include fever, tiredness, dry cough, sore throat and aching body.

Unlike a cold, the illness comes on suddenly. Cases peak between December and March.

Vaccination is not usually recommended for fit and healthy people because the occasional bout of flu boosts immunity.