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Belgium adopts code yellow for respiratory infections

10:05 08/12/2023

Belgium’s federal health ministry, in view of a growth in cases of flu and Covid-19, is calling on the public, particularly those with pre-existing health conditions, to be more careful and respect basic hygiene rules to avoid catching diseases.

Its Risk Management Group (RMG) – which makes decisions and recommendations on urgent public health matters – made these recommendations when announcing that respiratory infections should carry the yellow code.

This is the lowest of the three levels (before orange and red) possible for disease risk. The yellow code represents “an increase in the circulation of respiratory pathogens, but the pressure on health facilities remains manageable,” said the RMG.

In the yellow code, several aspects are evaluated, including the amount of work for general practitioners, hospitalisations or intensive care cases and the circulation of viruses such as Covid in waste water.

Four criteria need to be met in relation to pre-established figures, said infectious diseases specialist Yves Van Laethem.

"These data show that we have an increase, among other things, in the circulation of Covid in waste water," he said. "This means that we should be placed in a state not of alert, but simply one of preparation to wait for what happens next."

For Van Laethem, a familiar figure throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the choice to issue the yellow code should not cause concern. He said that there was no pressure on emergency services or on intensive care units.

“For the moment, Covid is circulating, but it is not very important in view of its clinical impact. We are also seeing a small decrease – although there is still a high level – of the respiratory virus. Therefore, it is a classic winter situation for viruses.”

But although hospitals are not seeing more patients, there are many more visits to local pharmacies. Far more people are going to the chemist this winter to ask for cough or cold medicine or syrups than last year, pharmacist Fabienne Van Hemelryck told the RTBF.

The RMG recommends the public to continue following basic hygiene rules. These include “regular hand washing, ventilating indoor spaces, sneezing into a disposable tissue or in your elbow and vaccination against Covid-19 and flu, particularly if you belong to a risk group,” or if you are more than 65. Masks too are advised for the most vulnerable.

But as it stands, despite previous warnings, and with the flu season in earnest, not even one in seven Belgians has received their autumn Covid-19 booster vaccinations.

Written by Liz Newmark