The swine flu vaccination programme that will cover almost 13 million people will begin next week, the Government said yesterday.
Hospitals will be the first to offer the jab to high-risk patients and frontline NHS staff from 21 October. GPs are expected to receive their first doses for patients in the priority groups from 26 October.
The announcement came as deaths from the disease passed the 100 mark, including two pregnant women who died in the past week: a 17-year-old from the Scottish Borders and a 21-year-old from Monmouthshire in Wales.
The 21-year-old delivered her baby safely before her condition deteriorated. She died on 9 October but her baby remains well. The 17-year-old and her unborn baby died earlier this week. Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish Health Secretary, said the teenager did not appear to have any underlying health problems.
"The death of this young mother-to-be and her baby is deeply saddening. Medical experts have been telling us that pregnant women are more vulnerable to developing complications after contracting the virus. I would urge all pregnant women to get vaccinated to ensure the maximum protection for themselves and their babies," she said.
Her advice was backed by Sir Liam Donaldson, England's Chief Medical Officer, who reiterated earlier warnings that while the virus was mild in most people, it was very nasty in some.
Giving his weekly briefing on the progress of the pandemic, Sir Liam said the number of new cases – 27,000 in the past week up from 18,000 the week before – was rising more slowly than expected, but the number requiring treatment in intensive care had leapt from 47 out of 290 hospitalised last week to 74 out of 364 hospitalised this week. The number of deaths in the UK rose to 106.
He said: "This is the highest proportion of hospitalised patients who have been in intensive care since this began. For most of the time it's been about 12 to 13 per cent, now it's up to 20 per cent, suggesting we are seeing more serious cases than we were seeing before. There is no sign of any change in the virus but this is giving me some concern."
Pregnant women are among the priority groups who will be first in line for the vaccine. The World Health Organisation changed its guidance for expectant mothers yesterday to support the use of the GlaxoSmithKline vaccine Pandemrix, which can be given in a single dose. Other patients in the priority groups, including children under the age of 10 and those with chronic health problems, will require two doses.
Asked for his advice to pregnant women, Sir Liam said: "Our message is the same as it's always been, that whilst the disease is mild for the majority of people including pregnant women, pregnant women are at a higher risk of the complications of flu. Therefore the sensible approach to reducing these risks is to get the vaccine. I do not want to see pregnant women dying of a preventable disease, that's the bottom line."
While the numbers of people with swine flu are going up, they are still short of the doubling each week that was feared, and are well short of the 100,000 new cases a week seen at the end of July. Health experts say the slower-than-expected pace of the pandemic's second wave has created a window in which the Government should vaccinate as many vulnerable people as possible, potentially curbing the pandemic's course.
No decision has yet been taken on whether to vaccinate the rest of the population against swine flu.