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Government steps up campaign to vaccinate millions against flu

Meanwhile Chief Medical Officer calls for expert opinion on flu policy

Mark Gould

Friday, 31 December 2010

As death rates due to the winter influenza continue to rise the Chief Medical Officer today moved to reassure the public that the NHS and the government’s response to the virus was appropriate.

As the Health Protection Agency announced that 39 people in the UK have now died with flu-like illnesses this winter, the health secretary Andrew Lansley announced the launch of an ad campaign to raise awareness of how to guard against flu.

Unlike previous years, this year’s vaccination season was not accompanied by a national advertising campaign. But as government advisors on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) urged greater uptake of the vaccination among-at-risk groups, opposition ministers immediately accused Mr Lansley of a U-turn.

To try to reduce the spread of flu, the Catch it, Bin it, Kill it campaign will launch in the form of national press and radio adverts from Saturday.

The campaign, which reminds people to practice good respiratory and hand hygiene, Mr Lansley said: “To help ease pressures on the NHS I want to remind people what we can all do to prevent the spread of flu. The first line of defence against flu is to be vaccinated – I urge everyone in an at risk group who hasn’t been vaccinated to contact their GP and book an appointment.

“The second line of defence is to practice good respiratory and hand hygiene – to cover our nose and mouth when we sneeze, put tissues in the bin and wash our hands regularly.”

Speaking on Radio 4 this morning Dame Sally Davies the interim Chief Medical Officer stressed that the vast majority of the people who have died of flu-like illness had underlying serious conditions and that the current rates of infection and mortality were well within normal seasonal figures. She also refuted suggestions that the ad campaign was being launched too late.

Dame Sally has also asked the JCVI review all the latest data and reassure the government that the vaccination programme as currently recommended, is the right one.

“I have asked the independent panel of experts on vaccination – the JCVI – to look at the new data that has emerged around this year’s flu season and reassure us that our policy on vaccination is correct. The JCVI is meeting later today and I will advise the Health Secretary accordingly.

All but three of the fatalities were infected with the H1N1 swine flu virus, while the remainder had influenza B, the Health Protection Agency data shows. GPs said earlier this week reported a rise to 124 cases per 100,000 people.

The HPA says influenza activity continues to increase across the UK with GP consultation rates now above baseline levels in all four countries.

Influenza A H1N1 (2009) and B are the predominant circulating viruses with few, sporadic A (H3N2) viruses detected.

The H1N1 (2009) virus strain is virologically and epidemiologically similar to that seen during the pandemic. The virus strains circulating are overall well matched to the current influenza vaccine. The HPA said it expects to see continued elevated influenza activity for several weeks.

In week 51 (ending 26 December), the weekly influenza/influenza-like illness (ILI) consultation rates remain above baseline levels in England (124.4 per 100,000) and Wales (92.1 per 100,000). The rates have now increased above the baseline in Scotland (58.4 per 100,000) and Northern Ireland (99.4 per 100,000).

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