By Lilian Anekwe
GPs have been told to raid their stocks of swine flu vaccine, and use any monovalent swine flu vaccine they have left over to vaccinate any eligible patients who have still not received the jab.
The Department of Health is also making the 12.7m doses of the GSK vaccine Pandemrix, purchased during last year's swine flu pandemic, available to be ordered from its central stockpile by GPs and PCT flu co-ordinators to ease the short-term crisis in supply.
Interim chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies said she would be writing to all GPs in England to instruct them to start using H1N1 vaccine ‘on the basis of clinical need'.
The move to back-up reserves of monovalent swine flu vaccine will be seen as a tacit admission by ministers that the shortages in seasonal flu vaccine may be more serious than the ‘local supply issues' the DH admitted to earlier this week.
But Professor David Salisbury, director of immunisation at the DH, denied accusations that patients would be offered a ‘second class vaccine' that they may have shunned during the pandemic.
‘This is licensed and is still within its expiry date, which is the best part of a year [from now]. We do have a further strategy up our sleeves if necessary. There's no reason why patients can't have the monovalent vaccine. But while there's a shortage we are doing what we can in the best interest of public safety.
He added: ‘Our responsibility is to the public. Rather than leave people to be turned away at a time when the virus is circulating we believe we should use what we have available.'
Dame Sally Davies said it was unclear what the cause of the shortage was, but admitted: ‘There is a mismatch and there are patients who are not getting the vaccine when they need it. We don't believe it's a large number and we do know there is vaccine available. But clearly, some of it may have gone to the worried well.'
It came as official figures from the Health Protection Agency showed GP consultations for influenza-like illness decreased from 121.4 in week 51 to 98.4 in week 52 of last year. There have been 50 influenza-related deaths this season, with a further 11 confirmed this week.
Dame Sally suggested this year's flu season may be approaching a plateau, but the RCGP warned: ‘In view of the reduced opportunities for GP consultation over the Christmas period, this should not be interpreted as a true reduction.'
Flu vaccine uptake currently stands at 70.0% for people in England aged over 65 and 45.4% for those in a risk group aged under 65. Rates in pregnant women are around 40%, the DH said.Pandemrix