Old pandemic flu vaccine 'to fill jabs shortfall'

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Media captionInterim Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies says the number of flu deaths is "not a high number for winter"

Old vaccines left over from the swine flu pandemic will be used to plug the shortfall in this winter's supplies.

The government made the announcement amid reports that GPs in some parts of the country were running out of jabs.

Doctors have been given immediate access to the 12m stockpile of vaccines from 2009 - but these do not protect against all the strains circulating.

It comes as the death toll in the flu outbreak climbed by 11 in the past week to 50 across the UK.

However, there were signs the outbreak may have peaked.

The latest figures are hard to interpret because of the Christmas break.

The number of patients going to see their GP with flu fell by a fifth last week, but surgeries were shut for two out of the five days.

The pattern is not uniform across the UK either.

GP consultations rates are highest in Northern Ireland, where they actually rose in the past week, whereas Scotland has lower rates than elsewhere.

Critical care

Meanwhile, the number of cases in hospital has started to fall in the last couple of days, although 783 patients remain seriously ill in critical care in England.

NHS chief executive Sir David Nicholson conceded the situation was putting the health service under severe pressure.

He said non-emergency operations were being delayed in some cases, with the north west particularly badly hit.

Nonetheless, officials still felt confident to suggest new cases may have started to plateau.

Of the 50 who have died, 45 had swine flu and five another strain, flu type B.

The deaths are mostly among the under 65s, with five cases in the under-fives and eight cases among those aged five to 14.

This is because the elderly seem to have some immunity to the swine flu virus probably because of some exposure to a similar strain many years ago.

Despite the hope that the outbreak may have peaked, the move to open up the stockpiles of the pandemic virus shows there is real concern about the supply problems being reported.

Prime Minister David Cameron even got involved. He said he had been having regular conversations with the health secretary and the government was "working hard to make sure we get this right".

His intervention came after days of concerns being voiced by patients and GPs.

On Wednesday, the government admitted there were "local supply issues" and said it had asked manufacturers to look across Europe for spare vaccine.

But it is thought there is very little free which could be used in the UK so instead the government has now said it was making the stock of pandemic vaccine available to GPs who needed it.

Shelf life

The 2009 vaccine is different from the jab being offered this year.

It offers protection against just one of the three strains, but as swine flu is the dominant strain in circulation the government said it was the best option available.

Professor David Salisbury, the government's director of immunisation, said the jabs were perfectly useable, safe and effective as they have a shelf life until the end of 2011.

"This will help protect the public against the virus which is causing the most illness."

Interim chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies added: "The message to at-risk groups is if you need the vaccine we have it."

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Media captionSara Jones' husband Anthony died after contracting swine flu in December

She said she did not believe the shortages were nationwide, but rather a "mismatch" with excess vaccine in some areas and too little in others.

She said it was unclear why this had happened as the numbers coming forward for immunisation were no different from previous years.

But she suggested some of the so-called "worried well" - those not in the at-risk groups - may have been given it.

Dr Maureen Baker, of the Royal College of GPs, dismissed this, saying some GPs had seen a surge in patients wanting the jab in recent weeks because of the publicity about the outbreak.

She added: "The move to allow us to use the pandemic vaccine is very welcome and should help ease the problems in certain areas."

Shadow health secretary John Healey added: "This action is better late than never but will only add to the confusion over the government's handling of the swine flu outbreak.!

GPs order vaccines directly from manufacturers. They base these on the number of people who come forward for vaccination in previous years.

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