Death toll continues to rise as row over jabs erupts

Child flu
Image caption Children have been particularly hard hit in this winter's outbreak

The death toll from this winter's flu outbreak is continuing to rise as a row erupts over who should manage the vaccination campaign in the future.

Latest figures show 254 people in the UK have died - up from 112 last week.

But overall flu activity appears to be going down.

It comes after Professor David Salisbury, the government's head of immunisation, suggested ministers should take charge of the flu jabs programme from GPs.

But doctors rejected the suggestion, saying it could make matters worse.

Of those who have died, 195 were infected with the H1N1 swine flu virus.

Four in five were among people from an "at risk" group - but many had not received their jab this season.

Experts said the majority of newly-confirmed deaths probably took place over a six-week period, rather than in the last seven days, as there has been a backlog in the recording process over the Christmas and New Year holiday period.

Overall, the latest figures, published by the Health Protection Agency, indicate that flu activity across the UK is now past its peak.

In the past week the number of GP consultations in England has fallen to 66.5 per 100,000 - down from 108.4 per 100,000 the previous week. The rest of the UK also reported falls.

Meanwhile, the number of patients in intensive care has fallen - they are now half what they were at the peak.

Professor John Watson, head of the respiratory diseases department at the HPA, said: "Our latest flu report suggests levels of flu are declining across the UK, but nonetheless flu is still circulating in the community and the message remains that people in an at-risk group should get the seasonal flu vaccine - it's not too late to protect yourself from flu this season."

'Pretty compelling'

Professor Salisbury revealed his desire to see central government take control of ordering and supplying flu vaccination in an interview with the BBC News website.

He said there was a "pretty compelling" case for the move after the problems this winter.

GPs ran out of seasonal flu jabs earlier this month, forcing ministers to turn to stockpiles of the old swine flu vaccine - which does not offer protection against all the strains of flu circulating this winter.

Most vaccines, including the entire childhood immunisation programme, are ordered by the Department of Health for the whole of the UK.

The system used means all vaccines that are sent out to GPs can be tracked and the government knows how many doses are left in the system.

Flu is one of the few exceptions, with GPs in England ordering jabs direct from manufacturers and similar systems operating elsewhere in the UK.

Prof Salisbury, who is leading a review into the issue, said this was a "historic hangover" that now needed looking at.

Professor Salisbury said: "Certainly this winter we have seen an unsatisfactory position. That is a situation that we don't want to see happen again.

"We compare that with the routine childhood immunisation programme where we have not had to suspend part of the programme because of shortage of vaccine for at least a decade. This argues that we do need to look very carefully at whether flu vaccine supply can be done on a more dependable basis."

He suggested as an interim measure the government could purchase an emergency stockpile next year.

However, he has yet to open talks with doctors. He said he would be doing that in the near future before making final recommendations to ministers.

But the suggestion has caused some surprise coming just a day after the government unveiled a bill paving the way for GPs to be given more power - they will get control of much of the NHS budget from 2013.

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Media captionBMA's Richard Vautrey: "GPs have done extremely well at managing flu vaccination"

Dr Richard Vautrey, deputy chairman of the British Medical Association's GPs' committee, said: "I don't think a wholesale change like this would work. The flu programme is complex and intense as we have a lot of people coming for immunisation at once.

"That does not happen with childhood vaccines and so I am not sure a central system could cope with the volume of vaccine GPs need almost all at once.

"What we need is for an emergency stock to be held, perhaps regionally, in case doctors do run out."

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