Flu superdrug is launched

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FAMILY DOCTORS could be swamped by demand for a new anti-flu drug unless doctors and patients learn to distinguish coughs and colds from genuine influenza, experts say.

Hundreds of thousands of patients are expected to flock to GPs' surgeries seeking Relenza, the first anti-viral treatment of flu, which costs pounds 24 for a course. Experts fear it could trigger a financial crisis unless demand is curbed.

Relenza shortens the duration of an attack of flu, which can last seven to ten days, by up to three days, and lessens the severity of symptoms.

The drug, which is inhaled using a special device, works by inhibiting replication of the virus and, to be effective, must be taken within 48 hours of the appearance of symptoms.

Nigel Higson, a GP in Hove, East Sussex and chairman of the Primary Care Virology Group, said flu was a major killer, especially of the elderly and already sick. In an average winter the illness caused 4,000 deaths and in the last epidemic, in 1989-90, 28,000 deaths."There will be a massively increased clinical workload this winter, a workload we can now do something about," he said.

A leaked report from the National Prescribing Centre in Doctor magazine last week suggested Relenza could cost pounds 115m in an epidemic year.

That figure was disputed at the launch of the drug yesterday by its maker, Glaxo Wellcome, which said that of the 3.4 million people who get flu in an average year, 600,000 see their GP and a third of those do so within 48 hours of symptoms.

To treat 200,000 patients with Relenza would cost pounds 6m.