NEW figures have revealed a major upsurge in cases of flu amid growing concerns over "shockingly low" levels of people being vaccinated against the virus.
At least 17 people have so far died from flu-related complications, mainly from the swine flu strain, and more than 300 are receiving treatment in intensive care.
GPs yesterday reported rates of infection had more than doubled in the past week.
Cases have soared to 87.1 per 100,000 people in England, from 32.8 in the previous week, according to the Royal College of GPs (RCGP).
Rates in the North are lower at 55.5 per 100,000 people, up from 15.7 last week. Schoolchildren are being worst hit.
Concerns are being raised about reduced levels of inoculation against the virus, apparently over unfounded fears about side-effects of the vaccine, raising fears a typical seasonal flu outbreak could prove more serious.
Swine flu is more likely to lead to serious complications in under-65s already vulnerable to infections, pregnant women and under-fives.
Doctors have also criticised a decision by Ministers to scrap a national campaign urging people to have the vaccination as part of public spending cuts.
Yesterday, Professor Steve Field, the former RCGP chairman, said: "Rates of uptake are shockingly low.
"It was ill-advised not to have the public awareness campaign on seasonal flu jab uptake that we usually have because we knew that the public and healthcare professionals were likely to become complacent after last year's swine flu pandemic wasn't the serious attack on the country that we thought it could be."
Health chiefs in the region have issued urgent appeals for people in at-risk groups to get vaccinated.
Jeremy Wight, Sheffield's director for public health, said: "I would particularly urge mums-to-be to make sure they have their flu jab to protect themselves and their unborn babies as swine flu can lead to serious complications in pregnant women. The vaccine is safe throughout pregnancy and can protect newborn babies up to about four to six months from birth."
Charlotte Procter, 26, from Stannington, Sheffield, who is expecting her first child, overcame initial misgivings to have the vaccination on Monday.
"I've seen things in the news recently that made me realise it is safer to get the vaccine," she said.
"I've also heard some horror stories from other pregnant people who I have been talking who have known pregnant ladies with swine flu who nearly died and their babies have had to be delivered early. That's not worth the risk."
Judith Hooper, director of public health in Kirklees, said: "The number of cases of flu in Kirklees is not unusual for this time of year, but I strongly recommend people who may be at risk of further complications to visit their local GP as soon as possible to get vaccinated against seasonal flu. The effects of flu should not be underestimated."
The family of a pregnant woman left fighting for her life with swine flu said yesterday she had regained consciousness.
Mother-of-four Fallon Devaney, 25, of Kirk Hallam, Derbyshire, has now been moved out of intensive care at the Queen's Medical Centre in Nottingham.
Parents of a critically-ill baby diagnosed with swine flu have claimed they had earlier been sent home from a hospital with indigestion medicine.
Five-week-old Harvey Flanagan, from Stockport, was allegedly twice sent home from the town's Stepping Hill Hospital before his parents later opted to take him to nearby Tameside Hospital when he "turned blue".
The youngster was transferred to Royal Manchester Children's Hospital last Friday and remains on a life support machine.
Mr Flanagan said: "It breaks my heart to say this but if we weren't persistent I don't think Harvey would be here now."