Reassurance for pregnant women from Chief Medical Officer

Pregnant women may be advised to avoid crowded places when the swine flu pandemic reaches its peak, Sir Liam Donaldson, the Government's Chief Medical Officer, admitted yesterday.

But until that time, it was a matter for each individual woman to decide for herself, he said.

Sir Liam yesterday took the unusual step of issuing his own advice, to clear up the confusion over the risks to women in pregnancy, with conflicting claims over the past 48 hours.

In his one page of advice, Sir Liam said some pregnant women who catch swine flu will develop complications such as pneumonia but most would make an uncomplicated recovery. The risk is greatest in the second and third trimester of pregnancy. Pregnancy reduces a woman's immunity to infection, because otherwise her body might reject the developing foetus.

"Bearing these risks in mind, at present, mothers-to-be are not advised to curtail normal activities such as going to work, travelling on public transport, attending events and family gatherings," he said.

"Some mothers-to-be may wish to continue their day-to-day activities but exercise their choice now, on a highly precautionary basis, to avoid large densely-populated gatherings where they have little control over personal contact."

"When the pandemic reaches its height (probably in the autumn) as many as one in three people may be affected. At that point, I may make a more specific recommendation to mothers-to-be and others (eg those on chemotherapy) with weakened immune systems to avoid densely-populated gatherings."

Sir Liam said pregnant women should wash their hands regularly, avoid people known to be infected and contact their GP if they developed symptoms.

The advice was issued after Andy Burnham, the health secretary, attempted to calm public anxiety over the pandemic which has shown signs of becoming more of a problem than swine flu itself.

Urging people to "have confidence" in the Government's strategy, judged by the World Health Organisation to be among the best in the world, he insisted the NHS had dealt "fantastically well" with the pandemic so far.

"It really is important to keep everything in perspective. This is a mild virus... and there have been thousands of people already who have had it and made a quick recovery.

"The NHS is a wonderfully resilient organisation and it has absorbed the extra pressure it has been under. GPs, in particular, have done a fantastic job around the country."

Mr Burnham told MPs the National Pandemic Flu Service will startup on Thursday. It will take people through the steps necessary to come to a clear diagnosis, and a person's temperature would be a key one of these.

Boots said there had been heavy demand for thermometers at its stores, but denied reports that they had run out.