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Pandemic predicted in autumn

Fergus Walsh | 14:07 UK time, Monday, 1 June 2009

One of the UK's leading flu experts has predicted that a pandemic of swine flu is likely to strike Britain in the autumn. Professor John Oxford, an expert on virology at Queen Mary School of Medicine, University of London, says that children going back to school, universities reopening and people going back to work after the summer break would give swine flu the "opportunity" that it needs to spread.

Health Protection Agency websiteAnother fifteen cases of swine flu were confirmed yesterday by the Health Protection Agency, bringing the UK total to 244. One of the cases was in Wales and is believed to be the first there.

But Professor Oxford thinks that many cases are going undetected:

"Already, sporadic cases in the UK have been shown that are not linked with cases that have travelled. That does suggest that the virus is silently spreading around."

However, he said that people should behave as usual, as far as possible, if a pandemic strikes. "What we don't want is people stopping at home and not going to work, because then you have an economic problem on top of a pandemic," he said. "The best advice is to carry on as normal but to be sensible about it. "This includes a bit of social distancing and shielding people from coughs by coughing into the crux of your arm."

Prof John OxfordProfessor Oxford said that in the next few months, global health officials will be keeping a close eye on what happens to the H1N1 swine flu virus in countries like Australia and South Africa. The southern hemisphere is entering its winter and the peak period for flu. On Friday, the World Health Organization reported that Australia has had 147 confirmed cases; Argentina has had 37; and none so far in South Africa.

What happens in the southern hemisphere in the coming months will be a good indicator of how the virus will behave in Europe and North America later this year. There would be particular concern if H1N1 mutated substantially to become a more virulent illness. Thankfully, there are no signs of that yet.

The Australian Science Media Centre is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to know what experts are thinking about the spread of the virus there. The Science Media Centre in London has lots of reliable specialist comments on flu and a host of other issues.

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