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|Subject: Britain on course for flu epidemic Children going back to school will trigger major flu epidemic Tue Dec 28, 2010 11:04 am|| |
Britain on course for flu epidemic
Britain is on course for its first flu epidemic for more than a decade, according to the Government scientific data
The level of influenza – including the swine flu strain – in the population is now higher – and rising more sharply – than they were at this point in 1999, when the country was heading for an epidemic which triggered a major NHS crisis.
With millions of people visiting friends and family over the Christmas period experts believe that the rate could reach epidemic levels within a week.
The number of flu victims in intensive care has more than doubled in one week, with 460 patients now in critical care beds.
Meanwhile, a Government memo is warning of shortages of Tamiflu – the main drug used to treat flu patients – in some parts of the country.
The rate of flu in England and Wales is 87.1 cases per 100,000 of the population, a rate which has tripled in seven days.
In the run-up to Christmas 1999, levels were less than 60 per 100,000 population, yet by early January 2000 the outbreak had reached epidemic proportions, with more than 200 cases per 100,000.
The records, which only represent those who visit their GP, always underestimate the true extent of sickness.
Influenza expert Prof John Oxford said: 'The numbers now are worse than they were in winter of 1999, and the curve is steeper; when you look at the graph the line for this year it is incredibly unsettling; it looks like scaling Everest," said the virologist.
"If that trend continues I would not be surprised if we get to epidemic levels within one week."
In the millennium winter, the resulting crisis meant patients were left to wait on trolleys and thousands of elderly people died, prompting then prime minister Tony Blair to order a tripling in health service spending.
Prof Oxford, from Queen Mary University of London said the "massive movements of populations" across the country as families came together for Christmas were likely to be speeding the spread of disease.
He said it was a "great shame" that the Government had taken the decision to axe its annual publicity campaign urging vulnerable people to have their flu jab.
"We don't know what will happen next – everything is now hanging in the lap of the Gods – and it wouldn't have been that way if people had been vaccinated," said the professor of virology.
While the elderly usually suffer worst from flu, research suggests they may have some immunity to swine flu having encountered a similar strain of the disease in previous decades.
As a result, in the event of an epidemic, overall death numbers were unlikely to be as bad as those in the winter 1999/2000, Prof Oxford said, though overall "years of life" lost might be the same, with more children and young adults being struck down.
Latest figures show 27 deaths from flu, 24 of which were from swine flu. Nine of the cases were children.
Across the country, pharmacists are complaining of shortages of Tamiflu, the main drug used to treat the virus.
Prof Dame Sally Davies, the Government's chief medical officer, last week changed the official advice to GPs, instructing them to prescribe the drug to anyone who might benefit – not just those in "high risk" groups.
A Government memo seen by The Sunday Telegraph reveals there are already shortages of the drug in some parts of the country, with concerns that stocks will run out elsewhere as demand increases.
The letter, by Dr Keith Ridge, England's chief pharmaceutical officer, sent to hospitals and pharmacies on Thursday and marked urgent, warns: "Following increased demand for antivirals, there have been reports of localised shortages at both pharmacies and wholesalers".
The letter, which announces the release of more than 50,000 packs of drugs from national stocks, says increased demand is expected, but that the level is hard to predict.
Pharmacies are told to ensure they have sufficient drugs to give them to patients within 48 hours of them falling ill, but told that stockpiling drugs "will lead to further shortages".
A separate warning about shortages of treatment for babies was issued by the Royal College of GPs on Christmas Eve.
Doctors have been ordered not to prescribe the liquid version of Tamiflu to anyone over the age of one, to ensure there is enough of the formula left for babies.
GPs have been told that patients aged one or more must be given tablets, with parents of children who cannot take tablets given instructions on how to crush and dilute them.
The same practice is more dangerous when the solution is for babies, because of the greater risk of giving too high a dose.
John Healey, shadow health secretary, attacked the Government's decision to axe a national advertising campaign, which until this year had encouraged take-up of flu vaccinations.
Vaccine uptake among under 65s in at risk groups, such as those with conditions like asthma, is five per cent lower than last year, while the number of elderly people being vaccinated has dropped slightly.
He said: "The health secretary should authorise an immediate public advertising campaign to encourage those most at risk to get the flu jab. This is the time to act."
Last weekend Prof Davies criticised ministers for stopping the campaign, after warning hospitals that half of the most severely ill patients treated had previously been in good health.
Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, said the numbers of those now critically ill with flu had been a "significant increase".
He said the NHS was "responding well" to the demands on it, and said the Government would continue to monitor the situation carefully.
Children going back to school will trigger major flu epidemic
The decision to cancel the flu vaccination programme for the under-fives risks starting the first epidemic for a decade when schools return next week.
Doctors believe that infection levels are likely to rise dramatically over the next few weeks.
Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, was yesterday accused of “serious misjudgment” for cancelling the under-fives programme.
Labour said Mr Lansley probably went against medical guidance in stopping the free flu jab.
The Department for Health confirmed that officials had considered again offering the vaccine to the pre-schoolers.
Instead, they reviewed the effectiveness of the jab on sickness rates among young children.
Flu rates already are approaching epidemic status with 18 adults and nine children known to have died.
One in 10 of the 460 patients with flu being treated in intensive care is under the age of 15, including 26 under-fives.
Levels have been rising at a faster rate than before the last flu epidemic in 1999, tripling in the space of the week.
Experts fear the peak of the infection is some way off.
Children and healthy young people are disproportionately affected by swine flu because they have not built up immunity.
Last year, all parents of children aged six months to five years were offered the swine flu vaccine on the NHS.
Seventy children died, but a full scale epidemic was averted.
In January, the joint committee on vaccination and immunisation said it would be “prudent” for them to be included in this season’s flu vaccination programme.
However, in July that advice changed. Doctors who earlier this year had asked for an extra £25 per patient to cover the costs of the jabs for the country’s 3.8 million under-fives, were told that they were no longer necessary.
The Daily Telegraph understands that the decision was made on cost grounds, with the Government saving about £85 million as a result.
John Healey, the shadow health secretary, called on Mr Lansley to release the minutes of the last meeting of the vaccination committee.
These are usually made public but have so far been kept secret. Prof John Oxford, a virologist at the University of London, criticised the decision not to give this year’s flu vaccine – which contains the swine flu vaccine – to children under five.
The decision increased the likelihood of an epidemic because children were so effective at passing it around.
An epidemic is officially declared when the rate of people seeing their GP with flu or a flu-like illness exceeds 200 per 100,000 people in a week. The rate rose from 34.6 to 87.1 in the week before Christmas.
Health Protection Agency figures suggest nine of the 27 patients known to have died from flu this season were under 18. The youngest was only a year old.