Government recommends antivirals for flu prevention

GPs are recommended to prescribe antiviral drugs to prevent or treat flu, the DoH advises, following a sharp rise in cases of flu.

Tamiflu is an anti-viral drug used to treat influenza (Photograph: SPL)

The department has recommended that antiviral drugs oseltamivir (Tamiflu) or zanamivir (Relenza) should be prescribed as a prophylaxis or treatment in line with existing NICE guidance.

In response, the Health Protection Agency (HPA) urged those in at-risk groups to get vaccinated to reduce the risk of serious illness.

During the swine flu pandemic last year, Tamiflu and Relenza were recommended to treat all clinically diagnosed cases of influenza.

It was also advised as a preventive measure for those who had come into contact with infected patients; were pregnant; or had a serious underlying medical condition.

These pandemic-specific recommendations were relaxed after the pandemic ended.

But the H1N1 strain is now circulating as one of the seasonal flu viruses and recent HPA data shows a spike in cases of flu.

In a letter to healthcare professionals, the DoH director of immunisation Professor David Salisbury said people presenting with flu-like illness are now likely to be infected with the flu virus.

As such, the government recommended that GPs and other health professionals follow NICE guidance for antivirals. This recommends Tamiflu and Relenza for the prophylaxis and treatment of flu.

Professor Salisbury advised that antivirals should be used when:

  • a person with a flu-like illness is in an ‘at-risk’ group and they can start treatment within 48 hours (or within 36 hours for zanamivir treatment in children) of the onset of symptoms as per licensed indications
  • the national surveillance schemes indicate that influenza virus A or B is circulating (as the first part of this letter confirms)

Professor Salisbury added: ‘I would also like to take this opportunity to highlight the importance of GP practices achieving high uptake of the seasonal flu vaccine among their patients in at-risk groups, pregnant women and healthcare workers.’

Dr John Watson, a flu expert at the HPA, said: 'Flu vaccination offers the best protection for those at high risk from seasonal influenza. If you are in an at risk group and you haven't had your jab, we recommend you make an appointment with your GP or medical practitioner now.'

Stephen Robinson

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