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Crazy Christmas looming over swine flu immunisations

By Christian Duffin

GPs face a frantically busy run up to Christmas after the Government announced practices would have to ensure all priority groups were immunised against swine flu in just three months, on top of the seasonal flu campaign.

The Department of Health confirmed last week that the swine flu vaccination programme would not start until October, six weeks after the first deliveries of vaccine – as Pulse revealed in our last issue.

But ministers want all vaccines to be administered to GPs, practice staff and priority groups by Christmas at the latest.

The Government has modified its priority groups slightly from the ‘tentative' list obtained by Pulse last month, with top priority to be given to individuals aged six months to 65 years in seasonal flu at-risk groups, followed by pregnant women.

Women at later stages of birth may be given different priority to those in early stages.

Third on the list will be ‘household contacts of immuno-compromised individuals' followed by ‘individuals over 65 in seasonal flu at-risk groups.

But GPs may be faced with initial shortages of swine flu vaccine after it emerged US pharmaceutical company Baxter is not able to supply as many doses as was first promised.

Chief medical officer Professor Liam Donaldson said Baxter the shortfall would eventually be covered by vaccines from the other contracted supplier, GSK. The DH is aiming to provide 54.6 million doses by the end of the year, and 132 million in all.

But its push on vaccination came as the other central plank of its swine flu policy – blanket use of antivirals for suspected cases – came under strong criticism in research published by the BMJ.

GP researchers collated data from four trials of the treatment of seasonal flu in nearly 1,800 children treated with Tamiflu – and found while it shortened duration of symptoms a little, it had no significant impact on the number of asthma exacerbations or the incidence of otitis media.

Study leader Dr Matthew Thompson, senior clinical scientist at the University of Oxford and a GP in Oxford, said: ‘While morbidity and mortality in the current pandemic remain low, a more conservative strategy might be considered prudent, given the limited data, side effects such as vomiting, and the potential for developing resistant strains of influenza.'

Weekly GP consultation rates for flu-like illness decreased from 42 per 100,000 to 30.9 for the week ending August 9, although the proportion of deaths from swine flu in healthy people rose from 12% to 21%.

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