Epidemic fears as flu cases increase: Government guarantees vaccine supply as 65,000 cases of illness are reported a week

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN is heading for its first flu epidemic since 1989, Dr Kenneth Calman, the Chief Medical Officer, indicated yesterday as the Department of Health insisted that there will be no shortage of vaccine despite a leading manufacturer being unable to release a million doses.

The last two weeks have seen 'a considerable increase' in the number of influenza-like illnesses reported to the Royal College of General Practitioners' monitoring unit, Dr Calman said. The increase, which started in the North, has spread to the Midlands. Cases are presently running at about 65,000 a week.

'Despite the widespread occurrence, and severe illness in some people, the illness being reported is generally mild,' Dr Calman said. 'It is not possible accurately to predict the impact of influenza at this time of year, but it would be reasonable to expect rates of illness to increase over the next few weeks and to spread to the South of England.'

His statement, urging family doctors to ensure that priority groups are given preference for vaccination, came after Duphar Laboratories of Southampton was unable to release one million doses of flu vaccine because of a late change in its production process. That change meant the vaccine had not had time to pass potency and purity tests. The company yesterday admitted its error. The Department of Health insisted extra supplies from two other manufacturers later this month will mean more vaccine will be available this year than the 4.67 million doses used last year.

Dr Calman said the delay made it 'important that the vaccine is given preferentially to the priority groups', particularly the elderly, those with lung, heart and kidney problems or diabetes, or those who live in nursing and old people's homes where flu can spread rapidly. The vaccine is not recommended for fit children and adults.

Dr Douglas Fleming, director of the RCGP monitoring unit, said influenza-like illnesses should normally run at about 40 cases per 100,000 population at this time of year. Last week, however, the figure was 67 and this week 127 cases per 100,000 population being recorded. He estimated that given the present rate and pattern of spread, the outbreak would prove less damaging than the 1989 epidemic which peaked at 580 cases per 100,000 population, about 550,000 cases in the worst week.

Dr Calman said the present outbreak appears to be due to the Beijing A strain of influenza which first appeared last year, and against which the current vaccine is effective. Evans Medical said it should be able to provide 50,000 extra doses a day, enough to meet demand if doctors did not make with panic orders.