National swine flu vaccination to start this week

A national swine flu vaccination campaign will begin this week, with high risk patients and frontline health workers the first to receive a single dose jab, the Chief Medical Officer has announced.

Sir Liam Donaldson said that from today hospitals would start vaccinating priority patients, such as people receiving cancer treatment, with the first deliveries to GPs for other at-risk groups including those with chronic conditions and pregnant women from October 26.

Sir Liam said that while overall rates of infection were rising slowly, and at similar rate to recent weeks, he was more concerned at the proportion of people ending up in critical care. Of the 364 patients currently in hospital, 74 are in critical care – the highest total in the pandemic so far.

The death toll also rose at a sharper rate, with 10 recorded in the last week, taking the UK total past 100. 

There have been a total of 83 deaths in England, 4 in Wales, 4 in Northern Ireland and 15 in Scotland. The announcement came as it was confirmed that a 17-year old pregnant woman from the Borders had died after contracting swine flu in the last 24 hours – the second pregnancy fatality of the week.

Professor David Salisbury, the Department of Health’s head of immunisation, said that Pandemrix, the vaccine made by GlaxoSmithKline, would be used for the first roll-out. He dismissed suggestions that as an adjuvant vaccine it carried more risks for pregnant women, and said that the fact that it could offer immunity with a single dose – rather than the more lengthy time period required with the UK’s other supply, the two-dose Celvapan – made it far more preferable.

Sir Liam added that postal workers’ decision to stage a national strike was “extremely unwelcome piece of timing” which, though it would not impact on vaccine delivery, would disrupt GPs’ letters sent out to those being called up for vaccination.

“While the rates of infection are not increasing more quickly, I am concerned at the relatively high proportion of patients in hospital in a serious category,” he said, adding that there was a school of thought suggesting that while the virus had not changed, it might carry a greater impact now the country was entering its seasonal flu period. “I also remain concerned at the rates of child hospitalisation,” he said.

On the topic of vaccinations for pregnant women, he added: “While the disease is mild for the majority of people including pregnant women, pregnant women are at higher risk of complications caused by flu. I know they wish to reduce risks to themselves and their unborn babies and therefore the sensible would be to have the vaccine. I do not want to see pregnant women dying from a preventable disease, and that is the bottom line.”

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