Health chiefs prepare for flu case surge

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Parents are being urged to remain vigilant over the threat of flu amid an expected rise in new cases as people return to work and school following the Christmas holidays.

Health experts also stressed that it was not too late for members of "at risk" groups, including those with chronic respiratory problems, to be vaccinated against flu, which has been linked to 39 deaths in Britain since October.

Professor John Oxford, an expert in virology at St Bartholomew's and the Royal London Hospital, said the return of children to school had in the past prompted a rise in the number of flu cases.

"You tend to get a surge," he said. "I would anticipate a surge, but how long that will last is difficult to say."

Recommending that parents of children in high-risk groups should have them vaccinated as soon as possible, Prof Oxford added: "This virus is not going to go away next week. Even if it's already peaked, it's still going to be around for the next couple of weeks and it's still worthwhile being vaccinated at this stage."

Parents had no need to panic but should adopt a disciplined approach to curbing the spread of flu, said the expert, who advised them to keep children away from school if they showed signs of flu.

Although closing schools in response to flu pandemics had not proved effective, Prof Oxford said parents were far from "powerless" and could aid the fight against the virus by ensuring good hand hygiene and keeping children away from others with the illness where possible.

Dr Douglas Fleming, director of the Royal College of General Practitioners' Research and Surveillance Centre, also voiced concern that the current flu outbreak may not have peaked despite the fact that a large number of children had already had the virus.

"This is a H1 virus and we know that spreads rapidly amongst children," Dr Fleming noted.

"I personally don't feel that we have quite reached the peak."

The Government relaunched its national flu prevention campaign on New Year's Day in an attempt to quell the rising number of people being diagnosed with the illness.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley ordered the reinstatement after it was confirmed that the number of people in critical care with confirmed or suspected flu in England has risen to 738, including 42 youngsters under five.

Government advisers from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) are also continuing to urge the vulnerable to be vaccinated against the virus.

The Health Protection Agency (HPA) confirmed last week that the vast majority of the 39 people to die since October had been diagnosed as having the 2009 strain of swine flu.

HPA officials said that although many people reported relatively mild symptoms during the pandemic, flu could be an extremely serious illness for people in "at risk" groups, including pregnant women, the elderly and those with other underlying conditions such as heart problems, diabetes, lung, liver or renal diseases, and those with weakened immune systems.