By Lilian Anekwe
Exclusive: The Department of Health has rejected pleas from GP leaders for a renewed marketing campaign to help stave off a looming flu crisis - and has told GPs to phone up their at-risk patients to persuade them to be vaccinated instead.
The Government is urging GPs to take action after the number of cases of flu recorded in general practice more than doubled in a week.
According to RCGP data drawn from 69 practices across England and Wales, the number of cases of flu-like illness rose from 32.8 in week 49 to 87.1 in the week ending 19 December – a rise of 165%.
The latest flu vaccine uptake data from the Health Protection Agency shows uptake is still low, at 43% of patients in at risk groups and 68.5% of those aged over 65 having received the vaccine.
The Health Protection Agency has said the majority of flu cases in the community, and those that have led to more than 300 admissions to intensive care, have been caused by H1N1 swine flu, which is the dominating circulating flu strain this winter.
Interim chief medical officer for England Professor Dame Sally Davies said this season's flu is no different to winter flu seen in previous years and said: ‘We have not got a pandemic.'
But former RCGP chair Professor Steve Field this week hit out at the Department of Health for its ‘ill-advised' decision to cut back on the £180,000 it spent last year on a public awareness campaign. His comments follow a plea from the GPC last week for the DH to 'step up a gear in terms of publicity' to avert a big flu outbreak this winter.
In response, the Department of Health told Pulse it had no plans to bow to the criticism and launch a marketing drive – and that instead GPs should ring patients individually to invite them into clinics over Christmas, as it was ‘vital that those at greatest risk are vaccinated as soon as possible'.
A DH spokesperson said: ‘In 2009/10 the DH spent £177,573 advertising seasonal flu vaccinations. This year there is no central campaign, but most PCTs already run localised activity with their GPs to ensure that eligible patients are called up for their annual vaccination.'
‘The Department of Health and the British Medical Association are both working to encourage patients to get vaccinated against flu and GPs to offer at-risk and pregnant patients flu jabs. This includes local GPs phoning patients to invite them to get the jab as they know exactly which of their patients are in at-risk groups or are pregnant.'The DH say it is 'vital' at risk patients are vaccinated as soon as possible RCGP weekly report week 50