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January 09, 2010

Swine flu rate drops as death toll increases

DEATHS linked to swine flu have increased to 360 in the UK but cases of the illness are continuing to fall.
There were fewer than 5,000 new cases this past week, down from an estimated 9,000 a week in mid–December.

The latest death toll, up from 298 on December 17, includes 251 in England, 28 in Wales, 64 in Scotland and 17 in Northern Ireland. A total of 27 have died in Yorkshire's hospitals including four in the past four weeks.

Sir Liam Donaldson, the Government's Chief Medical Officer, said the rise in fatalities did not mean things were getting worse.

"I don't think you can read into the apparently larger increase any particular trend or worsening of the situation," he said.

"It is just that we are still continuing to see deaths broadly at the rate we have been seeing them."

The total number of patients being treated in hospital has fallen by about a third from mid–December to 393. Children aged under five remain those most likely to be hospitalised.

The figure for those needing intensive care has only dropped slightly and now stands at 103. The number of over–65s receiving critical care for swine flu is increasing.

Sir Liam said: "That is one of the most interesting changes, suggesting despite overall fall–offs in the community, this severe end of the spectrum in flu is affecting some age groups more than others."

The total figures suggest Britain may escape a third peak in swine flu outbreaks following the surge in July and October.

Now the number of cases has stabilised, the Government is also considering selling or giving away some of the surplus doses of swine flu vaccine it has stockpiled.

It has received 23.9 million doses of vaccine from drug manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline and 5 million from rival company Baxter.

Those who have already been vaccinated include 373,000 frontline health workers, 113,000 pregnant women and 3.3 million people in priority groups, such as those with asthma, diabetes and heart disease.

Prof David Salisbury, the Department of Health's director of immunisation, said discussions about what to do with Britain's surplus vaccine were underway.

Options include selling it, giving it away, or possibly even keeping one of its component parts to use as the basis of a vaccine for a different virus pandemic in the future.

But Prof Salisbury stressed: "We have to keep a stockpile for ourselves because we simply don't know what is going to happen over 2010, and we know that there are proportions even within the risk groups who have not been vaccinated.

"If there were a UK resurgence during 2010 we would look very foolish if we had disposed of a valuable stockpile."

Flu prescription collection points remained open over Christmas and New Year – and 350 people collected anti–viral medication on Christmas Day itself. Numbers in Yorkshire requiring medication in the last week have increased.

Surveillance suggests 17 other viruses besides influenza are currently circulating.

Pandemic flu remains a problem in central and eastern Europe and the Indian sub–continent. So far it has claimed at least 13,000 lives worldwide.

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