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GPs on alert over deadly flu strain

The Government has put GPs on alert over a new variant strain of influenza that has caused the deaths of several children in the UK.

GPs are being urged by the Health Protection Agency to step up their flu immunisation efforts, focusing first on vaccinating young children in at-risk groups.

Government flu adviser Professor John Oxford, professor of virology at Queen Mary University of London, warned GPs to brace themselves for a difficult winter. 'All the signs look ominous. It is very unusual for flu outbreaks to start in young children,' he said.

Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson issued the urgent alert after the deaths of two young children in England and two in Scotland in the past eight weeks, caused by the new Fujian influenza A (H3N2) strain, which has already caused 'severe outbreaks' in Australia this year.

Sir Liam said: 'After three relatively quiet years, influenza A is appearing somewhat earlier than normal. GP consultation rates for influenza-like illness are increasing, particularly among children and young adults. We are monitoring the situation carefully.'

Dr John Watson, head of the respiratory division at the Health Protection Agency, said young children in at-risk groups were particularly vulnerable to the Fujian strain. He added: 'It is especially important for children over six months of age who fall into the at-risk groups to be vaccinated. When flu strains change, they are more likely to affect the young who will have less immunity.'

Sir Liam said the Fujian strain was a 'drifted variant' of the Panama H3N2 strain included in this winter's flu vaccine. But he said there was cross-reactivity and stressed immunisation would 'at least ameliorate the illness'.

He gave GPs the green light to start prescribing Tamiflu for flu prevention and Relenza or Tamiflu for treatment in line with guidance from the National Institute for Clinical Excellence.

Dr Douglas Fleming, director of the RCGP Birmingham research unit that monitors GP consultation rates for the Government, said the situation was serious and it was down to 'chance' whether there would be a major outbreak.

Dr Fleming, a GP in Birmingham, added: 'GPs must get on quickly and vaccinate people now. Even if we vaccinate everyone today some will still get flu because the vaccine takes two weeks to take effect.'

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