Inquiry as pneumonia kills 11,000 in January cold spell

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The Independent Online
Public health officials have begun an inquiry into why more people died of pneumonia last month than in any previous month on record.

Figures obtained by a Labour MP from the Office of National Statistics show that January's pneumonia death toll of 10,940 was the worst since 1965, when figures were first collected.

The number of pneumonia deaths - between 4,000 and 5,000 more than in a typical January - were blamed on the parlous state of hospitals in England and Wales and their inability to cope with the effects of a cold snap.

The death toll was made worse by a particularly virulent influenza epidemic leading to complications which caused many deaths through pneumonia. Deaths caused directly by influenza also soared, to 255 compared to 105 last year and 29 in 1994.

Rhodri Morgan, the MP for Cardiff West who obtained the figures, said the "shocking" number of deaths showed that the government's programme to give flu vaccinations to vulnerable people had been a failure.

Mr Morgan, Labour's health spokesman for Wales, said: "Why are we totally incapable of coping with a cold spell which in somewhere like Sweden would be regarded as a warm spell? In Britain it leads to 5,000 more people dying from pneumonia."

Mr Morgan had been worried by reports from his local Cardiff cemetery that burials and cremations were at record levels, having increased by more than 25 per cent on the same period last year.

The death toll meant thatfamilies across the country were having to wait more than a week for funerals. The backlog also caused chaos in chapels of rest. And, in some parts of the country, mortuaries were having to stack bodies two deep.

Dominic Maguire, spokesman for the National Association of Funeral Directors, said the huge increase in workload had been a regional problem. Areas most badly hit were Kent, Surrey, Greater London, Yorkshire and Merseyside. By contrast, Scotland had less deaths than last year. "In a lot of areas in England funeral directors' workloads increased by 50 per cent. The cemeteries and crematoria have not been able to offer the same service ... as normal," he said.

The charity Age Concern said each degree centigrade fall in temperature led to a further 8,000 deaths in Britain.

It called for cold-weather payments to be issued to elderly people throughout the winter, not just when there was a cold snap. "We need a short-term solution so that next year fewer pensioners will die," said a spokesperson.

Dr John Watson, consultant epidemiologist at the Public Health Laboratory Service, said that the PHLS had begun an inquiry into the impact of the January flu virus. Dr Watson said the death toll had resulted from the combined effects of the flu, a second respiratory virus and the bout of exceptionally cold weather.

"Whatever way you look at it, there appears to have been rather more deaths from pneumonia than in previous winters," he said. "Our view, at present, is that it was the result of a combination of things that happened to come together."