Swine flu five times more virulent than normal
Experts said the deaths were “very sad”, although not unexpected given the tens of thousands infected, but warned that any cluster of deaths could indicate the virus had mutated and become nastier.
Wendy Barclay, professor of influenza virology at Imperial College, London, said: “With so many people becoming infected we must expect that some fatalities will occur. It is very important to keep a careful look for clusters of severe cases that might indicate that a mutated virus has arisen that can be more virulent than the swine flu that has circulated until now. Each severe or fatal case should be carefully characterised using our best science to understand the reasons why this has happened.”
The first full analysis of the H1N1 virus, published in Nature, shows it causes more lung damage in animals than seasonal flu. For two strains of virus tested, five times less was needed to cause the same damage as seasonal flu. Damage to the lungs increases the risk of pneumonia which is the commonest cause of complications, severe illness and death in flu epidemics.
Professor Ian Jones, director of research at the University of Reading, said: “This complete analysis of the current H1N1 is what we’ve been waiting for. For a number of measures it shows that the new virus is more serious than seasonal H1N1 but that, nonetheless, the major outcome to infection is recovery. For the few cases of severe infection the data should help in the clinical management of hospitalised patients.”
The British Medical Association said it was saddened by the death of GP Dr Day, and the other victims, but urged the public not to panic. Dr Day, who qualified as a doctor in 1970, had recently retired from the Priory Gardens Health Centre in Dunstable but still worked there part time as as a locum.
Dr Laurence Buckman, chairman of the BMA’s GPs committee, said: “Doctors have always accepted that there are risks associated with their job. Obviously these are smaller than they used to be with the advent of modern medicine, but they can never be eliminated altogether.
“It is understandable that people will be worried when they hear that a GP has died but we urge them to follow the recommended advice and contact their family doctor, rather than physically going to the surgery if they have symptoms. The vast majority of people will recover quickly by taking paracetamol or ibuprofen, and drinking plenty of fluids. Anyone who is not recovering quickly should get extra advice as a small number will need more intensive treatment.
“We must remember that every year there are deaths from complications of seasonal flu; this is unfortunately inevitable with any strain of influenza.”
Liberal Democrat health spokesman Norman Lamb said: “Dealing with the flu crisis is a mammoth task and NHS staff need access to support and advice given the anxiety that many of them may face.
“The labour Government needs to ensure that all frontline NHS staff are given access to flu vaccines as a matter of urgency.