Avoid swine flu parties, parents urged

Parents were warned today not to take their children to "swine flu parties" in the hope they will catch the disease now and build up immunity.

Although no firm evidence has emerged of such events taking place, family website mumsnet.com has witnessed discussions over whether parents should take steps to ensure their children acquire immunity before the main flu season in the winter, when some people expect the virus to be more potent.

For many years, parents have deliberately exposed their children to playmates with chickenpox in order to allow them to have the once-only disease at a convenient time, but British Medical Association expert Dr Richard Jarvis today warned against taking the same approach with swine flu.

His warning came the day after news emerged of the first death of a child with swine flu in the UK.

A schoolgirl, believed to have been a pupil at the Mayfield specialist school in Birmingham, which caters for children with learning difficulties, died at the city's Children's Hospital within the past few days, health chiefs said.

She is the third person with swine flu to die in the UK since the start of the outbreak, but it is not yet known if the disease contributed to her death.

A spokesman for NHS West Midlands said the child had "other serious underlying health conditions" and tested positive for swine flu following her death.

The West Midlands has been declared a hotspot for the disease, with 2,104 confirmed cases so far, more than a third of the UK's total and more than two-fifths of all the cases in England.

Mumsnet founder Justine Roberts told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that she had heard rumours of "swine flu parties" taking place.

"There is an awful lot of discussion from people who have come up with a fairly rational conclusion that it might be better to pick this up now, given that we all think it might mutate to a more virulent strain in the winter," she said.

"We have heard of people saying 'Can we come round to your house when you get it?' There's definitely a prevailing view that it might be better to get it now and some people are not despairing if there is a case in their school."

But Dr Jarvis, the chairman of the BMA's public health committee, told Today: "I think parents would want to take into account that the flu - although this particular strain is relatively mild for the most part - is something that will knock people off their feet for a few days and we are seeing appreciable morbidity, severe side-effects and sadly the occasional death.

"My advice to parents would be to take this into account before taking any child along to a flu party."

Dr Jarvis added: "We haven't picked up any good evidence to suggest that it is happening. In fact, we have picked up quite a lot of evidence that the opposite is happening - people are scared, justifiably, and children are being removed from school when there isn't any need to actually do that."

However, he insisted there was no need for parents to panic.

"It certainly isn't something we should be scared about," he said. "There is absolutely no cause for panic. The UK is extremely well prepared for this and the response so far has been extremely good.

"We are now moving from what we term containment - which is pressing very hard on all known cases so we can prevent transmission - to outbreak control and treatment.

"Obviously the numbers are going to increase. This is something which nobody has immunity to, so large proportions of the population are going to get it at some point."

Since Friday, 1,604 swine flu cases have been confirmed in England, taking the country's total to 4,968 and the UK's total so far to 5,937.

Last week health officials said the West Midlands, along with London, which has 1,564 confirmed cases so far, would adopt a policy of outbreak management, with swine flu cases being clinically diagnosed rather than being confirmed by laboratory results.

The new policy means swabbing will take place only for a small number of cases to keep track of the strength of the virus.

Doctors will also use the drug Tamiflu more selectively, targeting only people with symptoms. The drug is unlikely to be handed out to everyone who has come into contact with a swine flu sufferer as a precaution.

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