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Second wave of virus is 'a slow burn'

Fergus Walsh | 17:21 UK time, Thursday, 8 October 2009

Just as last week, there continue to be encouraging signs with swine flu. The much predicted second wave has begun but the increase in cases in England and Wales is much slower than officials had dared hope. In Scotland, cases actually fell, but remain very high in Northern Ireland.

Just one graph for you this week, which sums up the spread of flu in England and Wales.

Graph showing the spread of swine flu in England and Wales

Take a look at the red line and you'll see that although cases are rising, the curve is shallow, in stark contrast to the first wave in June and July. If this continues, it will mean that vaccination of at-risk groups can be carried out before the autumn/winter peak.

Some of the main points this week from the briefing of Sir Liam Donaldson, Chief Medical Officer for England:

• Estimated number of cases in England in the past week: 18,000 up from 14,000 the previous week

• Rate of GP consultations for flu-like illness: 26.3 per 100,000 up from 22.2

• School outbreaks since autumn term began:116 of which 67 are in Yorkshire and Humber

• Two hundred and ninety people were in hospital as at 7 October of whom 47 were in intensive care

• Total number of confirmed deaths related to H1N1 virus in England 76 (four deaths in the past week), Scotland (10), Wales (1), Northern Ireland (3) giving a UK total of 90

• Around a fifth of the deaths were in those who had no underlying illness

The Health Protection Agency has a more detailed UK weekly epidemiology update.

Sir Liam Donaldson said:

"We are well into the second wave of pandemic flu but it is proving so far to be a slow burn. There is a possibility it might peak and at a lower level than we thought. This would be incredibly positive because it would mean we could roll out the vaccine. It would mean we might be able to avert a subsequent very big peak. But on the other side of the coin we have a worrying number of people going into hospital and intensive care. It isn't a killer virus but it can kill."

Why is flu rising slowly? Sir Liam said:

"There is a bit of herd immunity out there because of the earlier peak in July, especially among school children but it's too early to say whether it will continue to be a slow burn. We are still early in the flu season."

There are also encouraging signs from the United States where cases seem to have peaked.

Vaccine

The body which advises ministers on vaccination - the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation - has been meeting today and a key point of discussion has been whether to extend H1N1 swine flu vaccination beyond at-risk groups. If this does happen, it would be healthy children who would be the first group targeted, on the grounds that children are the most likely to catch the disease, and the most likely to require hospital treatment.

Vaccination against seasonal flu has already begun in many parts of the UK and swine flu jabs will be sent to GPs from later this month. Sir Liam said:

"There's been a supply of half a million doses of Baxter vaccine in warehouses for some time. We expect to get considerable numbers of the GSK vaccine quite soon. The only doses here so far (of the GSK vaccine) have been for clinical trials and there hasn't been a major delivery yet."

Scotland

The rate of GP consultations for flu-like illness are 86.1 per 100,000, down from 103.7 the previous week, but still higher than expected for the time of year.

Yesterday there were 24 people in hospital with swine flu.

Health Protection Scotland has a weekly situation report on influenza A (H1N1).

Northern Ireland

Finally, there is a sad reminder from Northern Ireland that although swine flu is mild for most, it can be deadly for a tiny minority. A 12-year-old boy died this morning in the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald. He had swine flu and had a serious underlying medical condition.

Health Minister Michael McGimpsey made this statement:

"It is very sad when a child dies and my thoughts and sympathies are with the family. I would ask everyone to respect the privacy of the family at this very sad time.

"Incidents of swine flu in Northern Ireland remain high and we must expect further increases in cases in the weeks ahead. Swine flu remains a major public health threat but we are well prepared and have been planning for a pandemic for some time."

Further information about swine flu can be found on the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety website or NI Direct.

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