Parents are being unnecessarily worried by the way the Government is presenting the figures on the unfolding swine flu pandemic, a leading academic claimed yesterday.
Figures published by the Department of Health and the Health Protection Agency show the pandemic accelerated last week with 100,000 new cases, almost twice the previous total of 55,000. Officials have said the virus is targeting children, shown by the high GP consultation rates (per 100,000 population) in the under-15s. But an analysis of the rates by Sheila Bird, professor of Biostatistics at the Medical Research Council in Cambridge, shows that the actual number of GP consultations is 75 per cent higher in adults, because of their greater numbers in the population.
Seven adults are consulting their GP about flu for every four children, Professor Bird's calculations show. They are published on the website Straight Statistics, a campaign launched last month to improve the use of statistics by the Government. "Both figures [the actual numbers and the rates] are important but they give a very different sense of what is happening. Parents are being unduly alarmed because they are not being given the full picture," Professor Bird said yesterday.
A spokesman for the Health Protection Agency said: "We believe the rate of GP consultations [by age band] is the more useful indicator. We want to provide information that is understandable and digestible for the public."
Professor Bird's intervention came as the Foreign Office reported that 160 British citizens around the world were quarantined with suspected swine flu or because they had been in contact with infected people. Consular assistance was being provided to British nationals in China, India, Singapore and Egypt. There were likely to be others who had been in quarantine overseas who had not sought assistance.
Researchers said swine flu could overwhelm intensive care beds this winter, especially in the South-west. Experts in intensive care and anaesthesia from the University of Cambridge, the Intensive Care Society and St George's Healthcare NHS Trust in London warned that English hospitals might be unable to cope. Pressure on the service could exceed provision across the whole of England by 60 per cent, they say in the Journal of Anaesthesia.
A pregnant 26-year-old woman critically ill with swine flu who was flown from Scotland to a hospital in Sweden was named yesterday as Sharon Pentleton, from North Ayrshire. Her family said she was "gravely ill" and asked for privacy "during this very difficult time".
Ms Pentleton suffered a severe reaction to the H1N1 virus which left her lungs badly affected so she could not be ventilated. She is being treated with a specialised procedure called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), in which her blood is circulated through a machine and oxygenated artificially. Doctors said the ECMO machine, similar to a heart-lung machine used in cardiac surgery, takes over the function of her lungs and was used to "buy time" while her lungs recovered.
The woman was flown to Sweden because only one unit in the UK provides the service – at Glenfield hospital, Leicester – and its five beds were full, two with swine flu victims. The Department of Health said the treatment was highly specialised and provision was limited across Europe. Countries regularly exchanged patients to make full use of the resources, it said.
Alan Hay, director of the World Health Organisation Influenza Monitoring Centre in London said the number of swine flu cases could peak within the next two weeks, before a return of the virus in the winter. Speaking on BBC Radio 4, he said: "I think we will see a peak ... in the next week or two if not already."
Fears that an online black market in Tamiflu could develop following the launch of the National Flu Pandemic Service were quashed by eBay yesterday. A spokeswoman said the online auction firm would not permit the re-sale of Tamiflu through its website.
"EBay does not permit the listing of any prescription-only medicine. The sale of Tamiflu on eBay.co.uk is therefore prohibited," she said.
Australian hospital accused of racism
The family of a four-year-old Aboriginal girl who died after she was repeatedly refused admission to hospital in Australia, apparently because of concerns she was suffering from swine flu, have accused health authorities of racism and neglect.
The girl, who has not been named, died in the arms of her grandmother, Katrina Walden, who said yesterday: "She was neglected because she was a little black girl."
Ms Walden said her granddaughter had been refused treatment several times at the Doomadgee Hospital over the past week, but was finally admitted on Wednesday after she pleaded with staff. The next day, the family asked for the girl to be transferred to a larger hospital in Mount Isa, but a short time later she died. Her grandfather, Athol Walden, accused hospital staff of racism: "There are some doctors and nurses in here that have a bit of an attitude towards Aboriginal people."
Kathy Marks, in Sydney
Boots sells out of thermometers
Customers at Boots, fearful of swine flu, cleared the chemist's shelves of thermometers. "We have completely sold out of thermometers," a staff member in one London store said. "As far as I know, all stores have done. We are not sure when we will be getting a delivery. People have been told that if you think you have swine flu, you should check your temperature."
A spokesman for Boots said: "We can confirm we have seen increased demand for thermometers across our stores and have increased supply accordingly with new stock arriving in store on a daily basis."