More than 300 patients in intensive care as flu sweeps the country
By Sophie Borland
Last updated at 4:31 PM on 21st December 2010
More than 300 flu victims are fighting for their lives in hospital, Government figures showed today.Data from the Department of Health for England revealed there are 302 flu patients in intensive care beds.
It is unclear how many have the H1N1 'swine flu' strain but they are expected to be in the majority. The figure is therefore likely to be higher than the 190 confirmed hospital cases so far.
During the swine flu pandemic of 2009, 474 people died from swine flu.
However, Professor Dame Sally Davies, interim chief medical officer for England, said: 'We have not got a pandemic.'
But she added: 'What makes this an unusual year is the (deaths) are in children and adults below the age of 65, whereas seasonal flu (deaths) are predominantly in the over-65s.'
Fewer patients than last year in at-risk groups, including pregnant women, have come forward for the seasonal flu jab, which also protects against swine flu.
Professor Davies said: 'We want more people to come forward for the vaccine, particularly pregnant women.'
So far there have been 14 confirmed deaths from swine flu and three more from Influenza B. However, new figures on the number of deaths from flu and swine flu will be released by the Health Protection Agency on Thursday.
Pregnant mother-of-four Fallon Devaney, 25, is just one of those in a critical condition in hospital after contracting swine flu last week.
Doctors fear that the baby is sapping Ms Devaney's strength - leaving her unable to fight the infection.It is feared that the swine flu strain may have grown more virulent over the past 12 months with victims quickly becoming dangerously ill.
Intensive care units are warned to look out for the illness in new admissions, with medics urged to use antiviral medicines if they have the least suspicion a patient has it.
Hospital managers have been holding emergency meetings to draw up plans to tackle a further onslaught of cases.
It is thought the cold weather could cause a surge of admissions, putting intensive care units under massive strain.
Analysis by SDI Healthcare, which models flu rates based on reports from GPs and chemists, suggests infection rates are at a five-year high.
Too little: Unlike the last time there was a swine flu outbreak, the government has been accused of not doing enough to stop the virus spreading
It estimates that nine million Britons have been struck down – nearly one in six of the population. Twice the level seen this time last year, the infection rate is 36 per cent above normal, making it the worst flu outbreak in five years.
Three strains of influenza are in circulation: H1N1 or swine flu, flu B and H2N3. Swine flu is proving the most deadly and has claimed 14 of this winter’s 17 victims.
Pregnant women, the obese and asthmatics are at greater risk, with the virus far more common in those under the age of 65.
GPs blame the surge in cases in part on low vaccination rates, particularly among younger age groups.
The Government has also been accused of doing too little to prevent the spread of flu, such as using adverts to remind people to wash hands or catch sneezes in tissues.
Chip Schaible, an SDI Healthcare director, said last night: ‘We’ve seen an explosion in cases in the past two weeks
‘It is one of the highest peaks we’ve seen in the past ten years and significantly higher than the five-year average for this time of year.
‘At the moment it is too early to say whether it will get worse or whether rates will go down again.’
Bob Winter, of the Intensive Care Society, said: ‘We are certainly seeing more patients in intensive care this year compared with last year. They have a mixture of flu, mainly H1N1 and are aged 16 to 65.
‘It seems to be behaving differently from last year. The ones that are getting it seem to be getting it more seriously.
‘Last year most people got mildly ill. This year we have lots of people in intensive care when it doesn’t seem to be that high in the community.
‘Some are ordinary healthy people – it seems to be hitting pregnant women, the obese and those with underlying conditions such as asthma.
‘We’re only two weeks into it and we’re already seeing lots of patients. It has got the potential to get worse. Rates have increased quite rapidly over the past two weeks.'
Increase: Glenfield Hospital in Leicester has the largest ECMO unit in the country, and has seen the number of referrals triple in the last three weeks
The 16 most seriously-ill patients are on heart-lung machines, known as ExtraCorporeal Membrane Oxygenation units, which are usually used to treat premature babies unable to breathe for themselves.
Doctors say they are receiving five or six new referrals every day for this treatment.
Even at the height of the swine flu pandemic last year only 12 of these machines were ever in use at the same time.
Richard Firmin, director of the largest ECMO unit, at Glenfield Hospital in Leicester, said: ‘The numbers being referred have tripled in the past two or three weeks.
‘It appears to be a lot worse this year. We are receiving about half a dozen new referrals each day but not all these patients need to go on ECMO machines.’
The British Medical Association has warned that the seasonal flu outbreak could be much more serious this year because fewer people are being vaccinated.
As few 40 per cent of those under 65 in ‘at risk’ groups have had the jab.
Professor Lindsey Davies, president of the Faculty of Public Health, called for health adverts.
‘It’s really disappointing that there has not been a national campaign this year, like there was last year. People needed to be reminded to wash their hands regularly and catch sneezes in tissues,’ he said.
‘This may be one of the reasons it is worse this year. People forget these things and fall into bad habits.
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