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21 January 2011

Good news and bad news in the flu furore

The worst of the outbreak may be over, but there are still no plans for a comprehensive vaccination

By Dominic Ponsford

The good news is that we appear to be over the worst of this year’s flu outbreak.

The bad news (for worried parents like me) is that there is still no sign of the flu vaccine being made available to children and the under-fives in particular.

I aired my frustrations about being unable to vaccinate my 20-month-old daughter against this potentially fatal but utterly preventable disease on this blog earlier in the week – saying that I couldn’t help feeling that it was all ultimately down to saving money.

On Thursday, I was given the opportunity to put these concerns directly to the NHS director of immunisation, Professor David Salisbury.

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He spoke to me as the latest figures show seven confirmed deaths of children under five from flu since September, against 11 deaths in the five-to-14-year-old age range, 59 deaths among those aged 15-44, 78 deaths in those aged 45-64 and 55 deaths among the over-65s.

The cumulative total number of confirmed flu deaths since September currently stands at 254 – a sharp increase on last week’s total of 112. But because of a two-week time lag in the death statistics filtering through, that sharp increase reflects the peak (fingers crossed) of the disease a few weeks ago, rather than the current picture.

I said to Professor Salisbury that it is all very well saying that children are at a comparitively low risk of dying from flu, but that this will provide little comfort for parents grieving the loss of those who have died from this preventable illness.

He said:

Supply of vaccine is driven by customers. If customers order the vaccine, industry then increases supply. It’s not a capacity issue, it’s an issue to do with what is the best use of the resources that we have available to us.

He said that the latest information was that those identified as being in the high-risk groups – who are being offered the vaccine on the NHS – are around 20 times more likely to die from influenza than others. So, he said, that is why the vaccine is being offered on a risk basis, rather than one based on age – as happened last year, when those aged under five were offered the jab.

Those in the high-risk groups include over-65s, pregnant women and those with certain underlying health conditions.

Recorded numbers of people with flu-like symptoms have dipped since last week and the number of people in NHS critical care beds with flu symptoms on 20 January dropped to 418, down from 661 a week ago. Some 20 in critical care with flu were under-fives.

For those worried parents (like me), whose children don’t fall into an at-risk category, the only thing to do is hope that supplies return to private clinics – which have been offering the jab for between £10 and £25 a pop – or else keep pestering your GP.

Prof Salisbury said to me that NHS high command only makes recommendations, but that it is up to GPs to make their own clinical judgements.

Dominic Ponsford is the editor of Press Gazette.

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