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Key Concepts
News - Newsflash

Last updated: 10.30 BST

Several newspapers have reported that the World Health Organization has changed its advice regarding use of antivirals for swine flu. The advice suggests that while antivirals should always be given in serious cases, they may not always be necessary for otherwise healthy people.

The papers pointed out that this differs from the approach taken in the UK, where Tamiflu is being widely used.

However, the Department of Health has said:
"We believe a safety-first approach of offering antivirals, when required, to everyone remains a sensible and responsible way forward. However, we will keep this policy under review as we learn more about the virus and its effects.

"The WHO recommendations are in fact in line with UK policy on antivirals. We have consistently said that many people with swine flu only get mild symptoms, and they may find bed rest and over-the-counter flu remedies work for them.”

Weekly update

There has been another sharp fall in UK cases of swine flu, with an estimated 11,000 new infections in the past week, down from 25,000 the week before. This week has also seen a further 10 deaths related to swine flu in England. With five deaths in Scotland and one in Northern Ireland, the UK total is now 60.

Despite the fall in cases the Sir Liam Donaldson, Chief Medical Officer, expects there to be a second wave of infections later in the year, speculating that the spread of swine flu could be similar to that of previous pandemics, which featured huge surges during the autumn and winter months. Equally, the new virus might behave unpredictably and follow an unknown pattern of its own.

Although case numbers have dropped, he also reiterated that swine flu still poses a danger, saying that “it isn’t a severe illness for the vast majority but it is for some and a small proportion of those, even healthy people, will die.”


Vaccinations for the vulnerable

The secretary of state for health has confirmed which priority groups will be given the first doses of swine flu vaccine, which is expected to arrive in October.

Andy Burnham said that the earliest doses of the vaccine would be given to at-risk groups in the following order:

  • People aged between six months and 65 years in the clinically at-risk groups for seasonal flu
  • Pregnant women, subject to licensing by the European Medicines Agency, which will indicate whether it can be given throughout pregnancy or only at certain stages of pregnancy
  • Household contacts of people with compromised immune systems
  • People aged 65 and over in the current seasonal flu vaccine clinical at-risk groups

The health secretary said: “Although the virus has so far proved to be mild in most people, for others it has been more serious. By vaccinating high-risk groups first, we aim to protect those most vulnerable to this virus”. He also confirmed that frontline health and social care workers will also begin to be vaccinated at the same time as the first at-risk group.


At-risk groups

At-risk groups will be the same as for seasonal flu vaccination, and include people with serious heart disease, diabetes, and those with weakened immune systems due to cancer treatment.

The list has been drawn up according to advice from independent experts at the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which reviewed the evidence and advised the Department of Health on the crucial risk groups to be offered vaccination to help prevent serious illness.

A vaccination programme for the rest of the population will be based on the evolution of the pandemic as well as new clinical data on the use of the vaccine.

People in the priority groups outlined above do not need to take any action yet. Further announcements will be made as the vaccination strategy progresses, and those who need a vaccine will be contacted.


Weekly pandemic flu update

Other key points made in the latest briefing by the chief medical officer (CMO) included:

  • There has been a further reduction in the rates of flu-like illness and related activity this week. There were an estimated 11,000 new cases this week compared to 25,000 new cases last week.
  • Weekly GP consultation rates decreased over the last week in England.
  • There are 263 patients in hospital with swine flu, 30 of whom are in critical care.
  • There have been 54 confirmed deaths in England.
  • There is still no sign of the virus mutating into a more dangerous form, or developing resistance to drugs.


Vaccine progress

The World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed last week that the first swine flu vaccines are likely to be licensed for use in the general population in September. Initial batches of an H1N1 vaccine have already been produced, and clinical trials are underway.

"The quality controls on today's vaccine are much better than they were 30 years ago," said the WHO, which also oversees the safety checks on the seasonal flu jab. 


National Pandemic Flu Service

The National Pandemic Flu Service was launched in July. This new online service assesses patients for swine flu and, if required, gives them an authorisation number that can be used to collect antiviral medication.

The system, which can also be accessed by telephone, will take the strain off GPs as swine flu spreads. For the moment, it is being used only in England.