More swine flu deaths last winter than during pandemic

More people died after contracting swine flu in Britain last winter than during the previous year’s pandemic.
More swine flu deaths last winter than during pandemicOfficial figures show there were at least 562 deaths linked to the H1N1 virus during the most recent “season” compared with 474 in the global outbreak of 2009.

The young and the middle aged bore the burnt of the cases with 50 children and nine pregnant women dying across the country, according to the Health Protection Agency.

It came after GPs in some areas struggled to access sufficient vaccines, prompting the Government to raid a stockpile from the previous year while hospitals were forced to cancel planned operations in order to care for critically ill flu patients.

In an attempt to avoid a repeat of the recent problems, the Department of Health now hopes to vaccinate far more people including frontline doctors and nurses as well as at-risk groups such as pregnant women and those with long-term diseases. It will also hold a central reserve of jabs and may centralise supply in future years.

Prof John Watson, head of the watchdog’s respiratory diseases department, said: “The information published in our annual flu report confirms that seasonal flu activity in 2010/11 was higher than last winter and that H1N1 ‘swine’ flu was the dominant strain. Sadly, a small proportion of flu cases resulted in serious illness and death, predominantly in young and middle aged adults.

“Each year hundreds of thousands of people catch flu and the majority will make a full recovery. Traditionally the elderly have been more seriously affected by winter flu but the picture is beginning to change as we are now seeing a higher proportion of young and middle aged people taken seriously ill.”

The pandemic outbreak of the H1N1 swine flu virus, thought to have originated in Mexico, led to the deaths of 474 people in Britain between June 2009 and April 2010. Most of those who died had underlying health problems.

The HPA’s report on the most recent season – between September 1st, 2010, and May 4th, 2011 – shows there were 602 fatal influenza cases across Britain while a further 91 probable cases are still under investigation to confirm the cause of death.

The highest regional concentrations of deaths were in the north west of England (96), Yorkshire and the Humber (83) and Scotland (63).

More than 90 per cent of the fatalities, according to data obtained from death certificates, were linked to the H1N1strain but 40 were among those who had the Influenza B infection, leaving at least 562 deaths in those who had swine flu.

Only about one in five deaths were in pensioners and three quarters of those who died had not been vaccinated.

Nine babies died before their first birthday, along with 16 pre-schoolers and 25 children aged between five and 14.

During last winter’s outbreak the Government tried to vaccinate vulnerable groups such as pregnant women against flu but there was neither a programme to protect all children nor a campaign to publicise the jabs, despite public outcry.

Prof Watson said: “We are very concerned that only half of adults eligible for the jab last winter took up the offer of vaccination, and particularly that just over a third of healthy pregnant women received it.

“For the majority of people with these conditions, flu is a preventable illness and ahead of the next flu season, a concerted effort must be made by healthcare professionals – including GPs and midwifes – to encourage those at risk to take up the offer vaccination. It is the best way to protect against flu.”

But stocks of the flu jab ran short in some areas and the “worried well” were accused of using up supplies.

In the first seasonal flu plan, published by the Department of Health on Wednesday, Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, claims the system “coped well” last winter but admits: “The consequences of the surge in demand for vaccine as well as the number of patients requiring treatment in hospital were felt across the primary and secondary care systems; there were also issues for the vaccine industry.”

The report sets a goal of increasing uptake of the vaccine from 50 per cent to 75 per cent as well as buying a “central strategic reserve” of the jab in case of shortages.

Ministers are also considering introducing a “central purchase system” for the vaccine – rather than letting individual GPs order it directly from manufacturers – on the grounds that it may make the system “more robust” as well as increasing uptake.


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