Death toll nears 40 as swine flu surge continues across Britain

THE surge of swine flu is continuing across Britain as new figures revealed almost 40 people have died from influenza-related conditions this winter.

Latest figures from the Health Protection Agency (HPA) showed a further 12 people died from flu over the past week, middle-aged people seemingly being particularly hard hit.

The Government said 738 people across the country are now in critical care in hospital with suspected or confirmed cases of flu, up from 460 on Christmas Eve.

Of the 39 people who have died since the start of October, 36 were suffering from H1N1 "swine flu", and three from influenza type B.

Yesterday Health Secretary Andrew Lansley caved in to pressure and reversed his decision to axe the winter advertising campaign advising people in at-risk groups to get vaccinated against flu.

The advertising campaign will now begin tomorrow.

His decision followed comments from Barry Sheerman, Labour MP for Huddersfield, who said the Government's refusal to advertise swine flu vaccines had cost lives.

He said: "I get a little tired of Andrew Lansley pontificating that we didn't need a national campaign.

"We didn't have it and the number of people vaccinated fell. GPs are under a lot of pressure being asked to run the health service, and they are being told that we don't need a national flu vaccine campaign. Lives have been lost because of this cost cutting."

On Tuesday it was announced cases of flu had risen by more than 40 per cent over the past week.

The Royal College of General Practitioners reported that incidences of flu in England and Wales reached 124 per 100,000 people in the week ending December 26. There were 86 per 100,000 cases in the previous week.

The figures still fall short of epidemic levels, which experts define as 200 cases per 100,000.

But the Government warned yesterday that cases of people in critical care with suspected or confirmed flu had now increased to 738, including 42 children under the age of five.

The head of the respiratory diseases department at the HPA, Prof John Watson, 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.

"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."

Mr Lansley was yesterday accused by Labour MPs of a U-turn after announcing that the Catch it, Bin it, Kill it advertising campaign would launch in the Press and on radio from tomorrow.

He had previously said: "I don't think that an advertising campaign would have necessarily made any difference.

"We are focusing on insuring that we do actually reach the people who need vaccination and call them for vaccination."

But a statement from the Department for Health yesterday said the campaign was being revived "in response to today's figures that show cases of flu continue to rise".

Shadow Health Secretary John Healey said: "Andrew Lansley made a serious misjudgment 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."

In Kirklees the local NHS trust said a recent shortage of the retroviral drug Tamiflu had been rectified. A spokesman for NHS Kirklees said: "After some initial local distribution problems there are now plenty of stocks in the Kirklees area, and no problems or complaints about availability have been raised."

Medical director for NHS Yorkshire and the Humber, Chris Welsh, said: "If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms our advice is to stay at home, drink plenty of fluids and take paracetamol."