GPs urged to step up flu effort in children
GPs are being urged to step up their efforts to vaccinate at-risk children against flu as official figures reveal under-fours showing by far the highest rates of illness in the current outbreak.
The Health Protection Agency is reporting rising rates of flu activity throughout the UK and warning it is still unclear whether a major outbreak is imminent.
Latest data from the agency show GP workload dramatically concentrated in young children, and lowest in the over-65s traditionally considered most vulnerable (see right).
Some 74 per cent of virology-confirmed influenza cases in Scotland have occurred in under-18s and 88 per cent of confirmed cases in the North West of England have been in children under four.
Dr John Watson, head of the agency's respiratory division, said: 'There is a true nasty flu about and children are susceptible.'
The Government has not set a flu vaccine uptake target for at-risk under-65s, sparking fears that GPs are focusing first on the target for every primary care trust to achieve 70 per cent uptake in over-65s.
Dr Watson said: 'Only a minority of young people at risk are immunised and we would like to see rates go up.'
But he said GPs must not neglect the importance of vaccinating the over-65s despite low consultation rates. 'I don't think it is appropriate to be placing all the emphasis on children. Although the attack rate hasn't been as high in the older age group the number getting severely ill and dying
is much higher among the
Government flu adviser Professor John Oxford, professor of virology at Queen Mary University of London, said mass immunisation of healthy children may be necessary.
None of the five children who have died so far from the new variant Fujian H3N2 strain was in an at-risk group.
'We need to learn from these tragic deaths and look at having an immunisation programme for [all] children,' said Professor Oxford.
Dr Mac Armstrong, Chief Medical Officer in Scotland where flu has hit epidemic levels in some areas has written to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation asking if there will be any changes to immunisation policy. The JCVI told him restricting childhood vaccination to those in at-risk groups remained the most effective way of protecting the population.
Overall GP consultation rates stand at 62 per 100,000 per week in England, 138 in Scotland and 140 in Northern Ireland. Rates remain below baseline activity in Wales.
· Nightmare scenario if
there's a flu epidemic, page 22
GP consultation rates for flu-like illness
Age group Consultation rate per 100,000
patients in week to November 16
Source: Health Protection Agency (England)