UK: NHS Instructed To Plan For Up To 65,000 Swine Flu Deaths

In a week that has seen the British swine flu death toll reach 29 and it is estimated that 55,000 people have caught the virus, hospitalizing 652 of them, the National Health Service (NHS) has received instructions to plan for the death toll reaching up to 65,000.

On Thursday, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, who is also the professional head of all medical staff in England, told the NHS to plan for between 19,000 and 65,000 swine flu deaths occuring this winter.

He stressed that the figures are not predictions but “worst case scenarios” to enable health authorities to plan. He explained that there haven’t been enough cases to produce proper estimates.

According to a report in the Telegraph yesterday, some GPs are seeing up to 60 cases of suspected swine flu a day, and leading doctors have suggested putting routine operations on hold in order to give priority to swine flu patients.

The Department of Health said in its weekly flu update yesterday that GPs are seeing flu patients at a rate that is “above the threshold level for normal seasonal flu activity and higher than the peak activity in winter 08/09”.

The number of deaths to swine flu in the UK has doubled in a week, from 14 to 29. The latest victim was a six-year-old boy from Kent who died on Wednesday.

According to the Department of Health, the swine flu is affecting predominantly the under 5s and 5-14 year olds.

A BBC report said that in the worst hit areas, hospitals are reporting having wards full of children with swine flu.

Half of all children could be infected during the first major pandemic wave, said Sir Liam.

Meanwhile the police authorities in the West Midlands have said that the pandemic poses a greater threat to the country than terrorism.

The death toll due to seasonal flu usually reaches between 6,000 and 10,000 people every year, and can reach 20,000 in a bad year. Most of the deaths are in the elderly.

Pandemic flu last hit the UK in 1958 and then again in 1968/70, killing around 30,000 people each time.

Experts thought that the swine flu would abate during the summer months and then resurge in the winter, but the numbers of infections and deaths continue to rise, with reports coming in that in some parts of Britain it is reaching epidemic proportions.

The NHS will be expected to treat up to 360,000 swine flu patients in hospital, with around 90,000 of them expected to need critical care.

The World Health Organization said that this global pandemic is the fastest moving one ever. The new H1N1 virus has “spread internationally with unprecedented speed”, they said in a briefing yesterday, explaining it has spread as widely in 6 weeks as past pandemics have spread in 6 months.

The UK government has brought forward its plan to launch the pandemic flu service which was not expected to go live until the autumn.

The service will only be available in England as the health service in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will not be under as great a pressure, said health officials.

According to a BBC report, the rate of calls to NHS Direct in England is running at four times the level expected in winter.

Sir Liam told the BBC that:

“The flu service will mean the pressure will get taken off front-line staff to allow them to concentrate on the most serious cases.”

The service will give people access to a call centre and a website that will help them decide if they have swine flu and through which they can obtain vouchers for antiviral drugs without having to go through their GP.

The call centre goes live next week and will be manned with 2,000 staff at any one time. Although not medically trained, they will use a checklist to help diagnose whether callers have swine flu and will give them a voucher number with which they can obtain anti-viral drugs.

The website also has a checklist that people can fill in themselves and get a voucher number.

The government has stressed that people can still go to their GP without having to contact the help line or use the website, and if they have underlying medical conditions they should make sure their doctor knows if they also think they have swine flu.

Sir Liam said that UK was expecting its first batches of vaccine by the end of August, with a total of 60 million doses by the end of the year.

Although the pandemic flu service phone number and website address are not yet announced, the Department of Health site is giving out this information to anyone who suspects they may have swine flu:

“Until the National Pandemic Flu Service is in place, if you think you or anyone in your family has swine flu, to avoid spreading the virus, do not go to A&E and do not go to your doctor’s surgery. Go online and check your symptoms on www.nhs.uk, or call the swine flu information line on 0800 1 513 513. If you still think you have swine flu call your GP.”

Sources: Telegraph, BBC, WHO, DH, MNT archives.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD
Article Date: 17 Jul 2009 – 2:00 PDT

Source: Medical News Today

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