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Worst of the winter flu outbreak is past

The worst of the winter flu outbreak of 2010-11 is over, latest figures show.

A clutch of indicators, including the number of GP consultations and patients in intensive care suggest the disease is in decline.

Total UK deaths doubled last week from 50 to 112, but experts said the sharp increase was due to the time lag from the date of infection and delays in confirming the cause. When counted by the week in which they occurred, deaths had risen more slowly.

Dame Sally Davies, the Government’s interim Chief Medical Officer, said: “I can’t say [flu] has peaked but a basket of indicators suggest we are beginning to see it levelling out.”

There was a small rise in GP consultations from 98.7 per 100,000 population in Christmas week - when there were only three days for reporting - to 108.4 per 100,000. But that was below the peak in the week before Christmas, when it reached 124 per 100,000.

The number in intensive care, which has been unusually high this winter, fell from 783 to 661 and has been declining steadily for nine days, Dame Sally said. Calls to NHS Direct for flu were also down.

Referring to the deaths she said every one was a tragedy which was “horribly painful” for the families affected. But the total was not out of line with previous experience of seasonal flu. Most were caused by H1N1 swine flu, this year’s dominant seasonal strain.

Six deaths occurred in under 5s, including that of three year old Lana Ameen, who was not in a risk group and therefore not eligible for the vaccine. Her mother, Gemma, a nurse, had earlier released a picture of her dying daughter to bring pressure on the Department of Health to extend vaccination to healthy under 5s.

Yesterday, Professor David Salisbury, director of immunisation at the health department, said serological evidence showed 63 per cent of under 5s in London and 43 per cent outside the capital were already immune to H1N1 swine flu by the end of last winter, either because they had been vaccinated or exposed to the virus and the Joint committee on Vaccination and Immunisastion had therefore recommended that the vaccine be limited to those with risk factors.

“The evidence for vaccinating [healthy under 5s this winter] does not stack up,” he said

Around 185,000 doses of last year’s pandemic vaccine had been dispatched to GP practices since the department announced it was being made available to cope with shortages in some areas last week. Flu was still circulating and vulnerable people should get vaccinated.

“There is no reason for anyone to be turned away because the vaccine is not available,” Professor Salisbury added.