Children and elderly at risk as killer flu strain reaches Britain

Science Editor,Steve Connor
Saturday 08 November 2003 01:00

A potentially deadly strain of the flu virus has entered Britain and may lead to a serious outbreak this winter, experts warned yesterday.

Already this year, five children have died from flu in the Britain, at least two of whom were infected with the Fujian-like strain of influenza, which has been responsible for an epidemic in Australia.

The outbreak was described as the country's worst in five years and put severe pressure on health services.

John Watson, a respiratory specialist at the Health Protection Agency, said: "For the past three years, we have seen very low levels of flu in the UK, but flu activity has started earlier than normal this year, so we are expecting to see more cases."

The flu A (H3N2) Fujian-like strain has not been prevalent in Britain, which means that many people, especially children, have little or no immunity," Dr Watson said.

"Children and adolescents have been particularly affected and there have unfortunately been deaths due to flu reported in children over recent months," he said.

"Two of these cases resulted from infection with the Fujian-like strain. Over the winter we usually see around three deaths in children from respiratory illness in England each week."

The Department of Health has written to doctors warning them to be aware of the situation and to remind them to advise "at risk" patients, and those over the age of 65, to be vaccinated.

"It is especially important for children over six months of age, who fall into the at-risk groups, to be vaccinated," Dr Watson said.

Dr Watson said it was impossible to predict whether Britain will suffer an epidemic this winter. "Flu just doesn't work in a predictable way like that. It seems to make it's own mind up," he said.

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