Health

Winter flu death toll reaches 27

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Media captionActing Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, emphasises the importance of vaccination

The number of people who have died with flu this winter in the UK has hit 27 after another 10 deaths, figures show.

The Health Protection Agency weekly report said 24 had had swine flu and nine were children amid signs the NHS is facing growing problems.

It has already been announced that the number of patients going to their doctor with flu-like illnesses has risen sharply in the past week.

But the HPA said a very large outbreak of swine flu was "not likely".

Last year nearly 500 people died with swine flu.

Nonetheless, there is still some anxiety about the number of infections that are being seen, particularly among the young.

Figures released earlier this week showed the GP consultation rate for all flu had more than doubled in the past seven days to 87.1 per 100,000 in England and Wales.

The figure is well short of the 200 total needed for an outbreak to be classed as an epidemic and also the levels seen at the height of the pandemic last year.

But it is still worse than what has been seen in many of the winters over the past decade.

However, what marks this winter flu season out even more is the fact so many young people have been affected.

Pandemic

This is a legacy of the swine flu pandemic last year. That virus is one of the strains circulating this winter.

Elderly people have some immunity to it, most probably because of exposure to a similar strain many years ago.

It meant swine flu during the pandemic hit age groups that are not normally that susceptible to flu.

This time round it seems to be acting in a similar way.

According to the GP data, produced by the Royal College of GPs, rates of flu are highest in children aged between five and 14, followed by children under four and then those aged between 15 and 44.

There has been a knock-on effect in hospital with more than 300 intensive care beds taken up by flu patients - a rise from 182 the week before. Although the figure represents just a tenth of the overall number of beds.

NHS Direct has also seen a rise in demand. The number of calls to its hotline last weekend was 50% higher than what would normally be expected, although not all of these are flu related.

The HPA said most people with flu would be able to "self-care" by taking plenty of rest, drinking fluids and taking pain relief.

However, those with severe symptoms are being advised to consult their doctor - the government has started to make anti-flu drugs, which lessen the symptoms, more widely available.

Professor John Watson, an expert in respiratory disease at the HPA, said: "The level of flu activity we are currently seeing is at levels often seen during the winter flu seasons.

"Recent research conducted by the HPA has suggested that a very substantial wave of activity associated with the pandemic strain is not likely."

And a spokeswoman for the Department of Health said despite the increasing demands on services the NHS was "coping very well".

"There is always more pressure on the NHS at this time of year and this year is no different."

But she said it was important that at risk groups come forward for their flu vaccinations.

Dr Dean Marshall, of the British Medical Association, added that there were still too few people coming forward for immunisation.

"Our message to patients is that it is not too late to get immunised. Most GP practices have vaccines available and would be more than willing to immunise eligible patients."

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