Flu deaths rise as pandemic vaccine reaches GPs

A further 62 deaths from flu have been confirmed taking the total death toll to 112 since September, the government has said.

The highest death rate from flu has been in the 45-64 years age group (Photograph:SPL)
The highest death rate from flu has been in the 45-64 years age group (Photograph:SPL)

GP consultation rates for influenza-like illness in England for the week ending 9 January rose slightly to 108.4 per 100,000, data from the Health Protection Agency (HPA) shows.

There have been a total of 112 deaths from flu since September. The apparent surge was caused by confirmation that deaths from previous weeks were caused by flu.

The first batches of GSK's Pandemrix H1N1 vaccine began landing on GP doorsteps from Monday. By 5pm on Wednesday, over 180,000 doses of vaccine had been delivered to general practices.

The department said the NHS could now deliver vaccine to practices within days of receiving an order. The DoH director of immunisation Professor David Salisbury said there was no longer any reason for GPs to claim they did not have sufficient vaccine of one sort or another.

GP consultation rates soared in Northern Ireland to 274.4 per 100,000, far surpassing epidemic levels usually triggered at 200. Rates remained stable in Scotland and Wales.

Vaccination uptake continued to climb. Estimates suggest over 46% of vulnerable pregnant women have now received the seasonal flu vaccine, in line with other at-risk groups.

Numbers of people with confirmed or suspected flu in critical care beds fell. As of Wednesday there were 661 patients in critical care, down from 783 last week.

Interim CMO Professor Dame Sally Davies said that while it was premature to say the flu season had peaked, ‘we hope [the data] will show, in retrospect, the beginning of a downturn’.

But she said it was ‘terribly worrying’ that over half of all at-risk people had declined vaccination when contacted by their GP.

Asked why so many patients had not yet been vaccinated, she acknowledged it was ‘extremely difficult’ task to convince at-risk groups to come forward.

But she insisted GPs had done ‘a wonderful job’ trying to improve vaccination rates. She called for those at risk who had yet to the receive the jab to contact their surgery.

Professor Salisbury again defended the decision not to vaccinate the under fives following an evidence review in December by the departments joint committee on vaccinations and immunisation (JCVI).

He referred to new figures showing that the death rate from flu among 0-4 years was one in 625,000. This is similar in the rate among those aged 5-44 years, at about one in 770,000.

The highest death rate has been in the 45-64 years age group. He questioned the wisdom of vaccinating the under fives age group when there was no special increase in death rate among this age group.

Many deaths from other causes may be missed if NHS resources were diverted into vaccinating millions of healthy children, he added.

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