Fears of flu epidemic rise as schools start new term

With infection rates soaring, Labour says the Government has 'seriously misjudged' the crisis

Health experts are warning of a "surge" in flu cases this week as schools reopen and the UK returns to work in earnest after the Christmas and New Year break.

As deaths and hospitalisations from the disease continue to soar, the increase is expected to push the crisis towards an epidemic. The death toll from the flu now stands at 39 since October and the number in intensive care is already four times higher than the peak of last year's pandemic.

The Government is accused of making "serious misjudgements" and not doing enough to prevent the spread of the disease, following budget cuts to educational health advertising.

Some GP surgeries have run out the flu vaccination, which is being recommended for those vulnerable to the disease, such as asthmatics or pregnant women. Clinicians are also warning that since the vaccine takes up to 10 days to provide immunity it may now be too late for many, as the disease is expected to peak within the next fortnight.

John Oxford, professor of virology at St Bartholomew's and the Royal London Hospital, said: "We can expect to see a surge of infection next week as schools reopen and people go back to work; it's in the lap of the gods."

Flu-related intensive care admissions soared from 460 to 738 between Christmas Eve and 30 December. International evidence suggests that 10 to 15 per cent of those in intensive care may die, so we can expect 100 more fatalities. Of the 39 deaths from flu since October, 36 were from swine flu. Only one of the victims was over 65 and at least 15 were previously "healthy"; 11 were under 15, including four under five.

The Government is currently immunising only those in at-risk groups. But even those eligible for the vaccine report being turned away from surgeries because of low supplies and confusion over whether they qualify for it.

Fewer than half of all under-65s in at-risk groups, and just over two-thirds of those over 65, have been vaccinated. The confusion over who is eligible for the jab may have been caused by changes to those officially designated at risk. For example, "healthy" pregnant women, without other risk factors, were included in this category for the first time this autumn.

Parents have also complained that children aged under five have been denied the seasonal flu jab on the eve of their return to nursery this week, as GPs await instructions on who they can give it to.

Hundreds of parents were turned away from doctors' surgeries last week because government experts had not completed a review that could reverse an earlier decision advising against offering the vaccine to healthy under-fives. Young children have been among the worst hit by the virus and many parents have chosen to buy the vaccine privately.

The Department of Health re-launched a health advertising campaign yesterday. But the return of the "catch it, bin it, kill it" posters prompted criticism of a U-turn, as flu advertising had previously been pulled in budget cuts.

Labour's health spokesperson, John Healey, said: "We knew this would happen. We knew from our experience last year what we would face, but there have been serious misjudgements from the Government, and Andrew Lansley has been slow at every stage. There is mounting concern about the need for him to get a grip on this situation."

Mr Healey said the overall flu figures suggested the crisis was heading "towards an epidemic" – and the peak of the outbreak had yet to be reached. "With Britain going back to school, work and nurseries, the chances of those figures rising still further are much greater," he added.

In a reverse of last year's outbreak, when the onset of the summer holidays helped delay the spread of swine flu cases, the new term is expected to stoke the number of infections.

Meirion Evans, of the UK Faculty of Public Health, said: "Flu does spread more easily during term time because students or children mix together more."

Dr Evans warned that vaccination might well be too late for those going back to school. "It is late in the season to be getting vaccinated; with a lot of the flu in circulation now you run the risk that you've shut the stable door after the horse has bolted. If you get exposed to flu a few days after the injection it won't do much to help you."

Northern Ireland has the highest rate of infection in the UK, with 132 cases per 100,000 reported, compared with 124 in England and Wales, and 55.8 in Scotland. Health experts say the increase is unlikely to be related to the country's water supply crisis but a lack of running water will make it harder to maintain good hygiene, helping the spread of the disease.

Lorraine Doherty, Northern Ireland's assistant director of public health, said: "Our flu cases have increased uniformly throughout the province, so there's no evidence it is the water issue, but it is a challenge to maintain the same hygiene standards without running water ... I anticipate [infections] will further increase next week."

Although some GP surgeries have reported running out of the vaccine, the Department of Health insists there is no national shortage. A spokeswoman said: "GPs have already been asked to check their stocks. If they have run out, they have already been advised to work with neighbouring practices or their primary care trust to obtain further supplies. Manufacturers and suppliers still have stocks available for ordering."

Q&A: What it is and how to avoid it

What exactly is this 'flu' that has knocked so many sideways?

Take your pick from a sky-high fever, chesty cough, sore throat, aches, upset stomach, headache and runny nose: any of these symptoms can denote flu. Like last time, the majority of the serious cases are H1N1 – or swine flu. Of the 39 people to die so far, 36 had swine flu and only three had flu type B, typically a weaker strain of the virus.

How does H1N1 differ from 'normal' flu?

H1N1 is an aggressive strain of flu, which attacks the respiratory system and is capable of killing previously healthy adults. John Oxford, professor of virology at St Bartholomew's and the Royal London Hospital, says: "H1N1 is a very Darwinian virus. It is dominant and super fit, so it can push everything else out of the way and then off it goes.... It's like the beer that reaches places other beers can't reach – it gets much deeper into the respiratory system and makes some people very ill."

How many people are affected?

Everyone seems to know someone who has suffered, and indeed thousands are likely to get a mild version of the virus this winter. But with at least 738 people requiring intensive care so far and 39 deaths, for some people, catching the disease is far more serious. In England and Wales, 124 people in every 100,000 had confirmed or suspected flu infections between 20 and 27 December. In Northern Ireland, there were 132 cases in every 100,000 people, and in Scotland, 58.

Who should be most worried?

Normally the elderly are most at risk from flu, but H1N1 is disproportionately hitting the under-50s. Scientists believe this may be because older people developed immunity after being exposed to Spanish flu, which stopped circulating after the 1950s. Only one of the reported deaths since October was someone over 65; 11 were children under 15, including four under five. Pregnant women are up to four times more likely to get seriously ill. Those with existing respiratory problems are also at risk.

Is there a cure?

Tamiflu helps shorten its length and may curtail its spread, but it is not a "cure". It is also only effective if taken within the first 48 hours of symptoms.

What is the Government doing?

Too little, too late, many believe. The coalition withdrew campaigns on preventing the spread of germs in budget cuts last year, before reinstating them yesterday. Although vaccinations have been available to at-risk groups since the autumn – unlike last year, when vaccines only became available late-on in the pandemic – uptake has been low. Critics blame the lack of advertising.

How can you prevent catching it?

Those in at-risk groups – such as pregnant women and asthma sufferers – should get a vaccination as soon as possible. Otherwise, take basic hygiene precautions, such as using tissues for coughs and sneezes, and washing hands regularly. A healthy diet and regular exercise also help reduce the risk of infection.

What will happen now?

Since the latest count showed more than 700 people in intensive care, we can expect a sharp rise in deaths. International evidence suggests that 10 to 15 per cent of those in intensive care may die, implying 100 more fatalities. The virus is anticipated to peak within the next fortnight, but that will not be the last of it. Professor Oxford says: "It isn't going away. It will definitely be back next year. It won't extinguish itself like other viruses do."

More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedyFirst national survey reveals Britain’s comedic tastes
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Bruce Chatwin's novel 'On the Black Hill' was set at The Vision Farm
travelOne of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
footballManchester City 1 Roma 1: Result leaves Premier League champions in danger of not progressing
Arts and Entertainment
Gay and OK: a scene from 'Pride'
filmsUS film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
Life and Style
Magic roundabouts: the gyratory system that has excited enthusiasts in Swindon
motoringJust who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
booksWell it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Commercial Litigation NQ+

    Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE NQ to MID LEVEL - An e...


    Highly Attractive Pakage: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - A highly attractive oppor...

    Senior Marketing Manager - Central London - £50,000

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (Campaigns, Offlin...

    Head of Marketing - Acquisition & Direct Reponse Marketing

    £90000 - £135000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Marketing (B2C, Acquisition...

    Day In a Page

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?