Flu adverts to start as deaths continue to rise

An advertising campaign at fighting the spread of flu is to begin on New Year’s Day after ministers caved in to criticism of their handling of the outbreak, as new figures showed the death toll had spiked.

Andrew Lansley, Health Secretary, had come under fire for cancelling the usual winter flu campaign encouraging good hygiene measures to limit spread of the disease.

Announcing that radio and press advertising would begin again on New Year’s Day, he said that the NHS has been under “huge pressures”.

The campaign will run for three weeks and cost just under £1m.

A further 12 people have died in the past week bringing the total this winter to 39, although this is likely to be an underestimate, experts have said.

The Health Protection Agency figures also revealed another rise in the number of people seriously ill with flu.

Last week there were 460 people in intensive care, which has now jumped to 738. There are more than 3,600 intensive care beds with contingency plans in place to double this if necessary.

Other figures revealed earlier this week that winter flu cases are now at their highest point since the last official epidemic, ten years ago with the under fives being hit particularly hard.

In England there were 125 GP consultations per 100,000 people in the week ending Boxing Day.

An official epidemic is declared when GP consultations reach 200 per 100,000.

Four of the deaths have been in children under five-years of age and six in ten of the deaths were in people who were eligible for the vaccine.

However, Government advisers today decided against including small children in the routine vaccination programme.

Makeshift wards have been set up in hospital lounges in Wolverhampton in order to cope with the influx of flu cases and visitors have been banned from a hospital in Merseyside in a bid to stop flu spreading among patients.

Mr Lansley said: “I’d like to thank NHS staff for all their hard work over the Christmas period and through the very difficult weather conditions we have been experiencing. NHS staff have been under huge pressures but their commitment and quality of care has shone through.

“But it’s not over yet – there are still considerable pressures due to the cold weather and the rising cases of flu.

“To help ease pressures on the NHS I want to remind people what we can all do to prevent the spread of flu. The first line of defence against flu is to be vaccinated – I urge everyone in an at risk group who hasn’t been vaccinated to contact their GP and book an appointment.

“The second line of defence is to practice good respiratory and hand hygiene – to cover our nose and mouth when we sneeze, put tissues in the bin and wash our hands regularly. That’s why we’re relaunching the Catch it, Bin it, Kill it campaign from this Saturday.

“The third line of defence is a well prepared NHS with the ability to treat those who do need help. Thanks to robust early planning, the NHS is coping well with the pressures of seasonal flu this year.”

Last year’s Catch it, Bin it, Kill it campaign will be repeated with no specific advertising around vaccination.

The vaccination programme, which offers the jab free on the NHS to the over 65s, those with long-term conditions like asthma, heart disease and kidney failure, along with pregnant women and carers, is now under review.

There has been controversy over the decision not to include healthy under fives in the programme as this group were given the pandemic swine flu vaccine last year along with pregnant women, however only expectant mothers were included in the programme for this winter.

The seasonal flu vaccine offers protection against three strains of flu, the H1N1 swine flu strain which is the most common one in circulation, H3N2 and a B strain.

However, independent government advisors decided on an emergency teleconference not to reintroduce vaccination for healthy children under the age of five.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, chaired by Prof Andrew Hall, said in a letter to the chief medical officer, that while younger children were suffering from high instances of flu-like illness, many of these were in fact caused by other viruses.

In addition, the proportion of flu victims suffering servere forms of the illness was relatively small among children.

“Based on previous seasonal influenza epidemiology it would be hoped that influenza circulation will have subsided within a month.

“We do not believe that seasonal or pandemic vaccine should be used for these or other healthy person groups. The greatest gain will be achieved in increasing vaccine uptake in the clinical risk groups.”

The recommendations of the Committe were made legally binding on Government in new legislation introduced in April.

The recommendations of the Committe were made legally binding on Government in new legislation introduced in April.

Professor John Watson, head of the respiratory diseases department at the HPA, said: “We are seeing a large amount of flu circulating across the country and would urge those people in an at-risk group to have their seasonal flu vaccine as soon as possible as this is the best way to protect themselves from flu this winter.

“Anyone who has symptoms of flu-like illness should get medical advice as soon as possible and their GP will prescribe antivirals to reduce their symptoms and lessen the risk of them developing complications.

“Although there were reports of many people during the pandemic only experiencing mild disease we can’t stress enough that flu can be an extremely serious illness for people in ‘at risk’ groups, including pregnant women, the elderly and those with other underlying conditions such as heart problems, diabetes, lung, liver or renal diseases and those who have weakened immune systems.

“Most people with flu can ‘self care’ by taking plenty of rest, drinking lots of fluids and taking over the counter pain relievers such as paracetamol. But anyone displaying severe symptoms, particularly those in vulnerable groups should contact their GP or local out-of-hours service for medical advice.”

He said that basic good hygiene – such asu sing a tissue, throwing it away immediately and washing hands as soon as possible – will help limit the spread of flu.

Shadow Health Secretary John Healey said: “Andrew Lansley made a serious misjudgement when he axed the autumn advertising campaign to help public understanding of flu and boost vaccinations. But I welcome this u-turn, as late in the day as it will appear to many people.”

Rebecca Smith
Telegraph UK

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