None of the patients who died had been vaccinated against the Beijing A strain of the virus, despite advice from the Department of Health that those most at risk should be immunised as a priority.
It is not known whether a shortage of vaccine is related to the deaths, but demand is outstripping its availability in many parts of the country. In North Yorkshire, one of the badly affected areas, GPs have been told that they may not receive requested supplies for weeks.
Dr Kenneth Calman, the Government's chief medical officer, gave assurances last week that there would be no shortage despite a leading manufacturer being unable to release a million doses.
Extra supplies from other pharmaceutical companies will be available later this month, but Dr Calman said that the delay made it 'important that the vaccine is given preferentially to the priority groups, particularly the elderly . . . or those who live in nursing and old people's homes where flu can spread rapidly.' The vaccine provides about 70 per cent protection.
Figures released today by the Royal College of General Practitioners' monitoring unit are expected to reveal a sharp rise in the number of cases of flu and flu-like illnesses, and show how the virus is moving rapidly south from northern parts of the country where the bulk of cases are being reported. The figures for England and Wales for last week showed an average 122 cases per 100,000. A breakdown by area showed that for the North the figure was 164 per 100,000; 143 per 100,000 in the Midlands; and 52 cases per 100,000 in the South.
The epidemic is most severe in Scotland where thousands of adults and children have been affected. Dr Donald Campbell of the Communicable Diseases Unit, at Ruchill hospital, Glasgow, said yesterday: 'We are picking up a large number of cases of flu earlier than we would normally expect.'
Seven patients on one ward at the Knowle Hospital, in Fareham, Hampshire, died following an outbreak of flu. Roger Aveyard, general manager of the hospital, said last night: 'All the patients involved were elderly and in a frail condition. It is worth noting that the vaccination could have adverse effects, especially if the person is old and has other illnesses.'
Two men and two women died on Monday night at the Chalmers hospital, a geriatric unit in Edinburgh, and the two wards where they were being treated are now closed to new admissions. A spokeswoman confirmed that flu was the most 'probable cause'.
Some schools in the Isle of Wight have been been badly hit. The Forelands Middle School, at Bembridge, has almost a quarter of its pupils off sick. And at Ashworth hospital, on Merseyside, all leave has been cancelled because of flu.
Healthy adults and children do not need vaccination, and although larger than expected numbers are developing the infection, the illness appears to be mild in most people.Reuse content