A second wave of swine flu is on the way, the Government's Chief Medical Officer said yesterday after the number of cases in England almost doubled in the past seven days to 9,000.
Sir Liam Donaldson said there were 5,000 cases last week in England and 3,000 in the week before. Scotland saw a slower increase from over 6,000 cases to 7,000. While most cases continue to be mild the number of swine flu related deaths for the UK rose to 82.
"Everything suggests we are seeing the start of the second peak, but we just don't know how big that will be," Sir Liam said. Calls to the National Pandemic Flu Service for England in the last three days were "substantially above" the rate over the past few weeks, he said.
The number of people being treated in hospital in England rose by more than half, from 143 last week to 218 this week. Of these, 25 patients are in intensive care. Although yesterday's figures are sharply up on recent weeks, they fall far short of the first peak of the pandemic in July, when England was seeing around 100,000 cases a week.
The levels are also a long way off the normal levels of seasonal flu in winter.
Sir Liam said: "I would have preferred not to have seen any increases yet and had more flatlining because that gets us close to the vaccine becoming available. I would have preferred to have had more breathing space."
Most of the latest rise is among children aged five to 15. At least 66 schools have had swine flu outbreaks since the start of the autumn term, according to official figures, but Sir Liam admitted the true figure was probably higher. Data on schools was not being systematically collected, he said.
Measures that would make a big difference in schools include regularly washing hands with soap and water, throwing tissues away and covering the mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing.
"Research across a lot of children's diseases does show that that cuts the rate," he said. "Parents of children with underlying illnesses should consult their doctor (if they have flu) and children with flu-like symptoms and whose condition deteriorates should consult their doctor because that might be an indication that they have serious complications of flu or have another serious illness of childhood."
The Government is waiting for European regulators to licence the swine flu vaccine before it can be given to members of the public.
Those in high-risk groups, such as people with asthma or diabetes, will be vaccinated first, together with health workers. Evidence suggests that people may only need one dose of the jab rather than two, although children may still need two after showing a lower immune response in clinical trials.
Sir Liam said he was "optimistic" that the country may be able to rely on one dose for adults.
The World Health Organisation said yesterday drug manufacturers could only make enough vaccine against H1N1 pandemic flu for half the world's population each year because they lack factory capacity. It revised down its earlier forecast of 5 billion doses a year to 3 billion for the world's 6.8 billion population. Developing nations will depend mainly on donations for their supply, WHO said.