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Officials watch events in southern hemisphere as swine flu rates in UK slow down

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.b3263 (Published 07 August 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b3263
  1. Oona Mashta
  1. 1London

    Experts are closely monitoring how A/H1N1 influenza in the southern hemisphere, where the death rate from the virus is rising in some countries, to help predict what might happen in the United Kingdom over the winter months.

    The first wave of swine flu in England has passed its peak in recent days, indicate figures from the Health Protection Agency that show a substantial decrease in the overall number of new cases, doctors’ consultations, and use of the pandemic flu service.

    But in his weekly briefings on Thursday on the virus, England’s chief medical officer, Liam Donaldson, said that he was expecting a second wave.

    There were an estimated 30 000 new cases in England last week compared with 110 000 the week before.

    Admissions to hospital and the number of patients in critical care have lessened. In total, 530 patients were admitted to hospital in England last week; the previous week’s total was 793.

    The Health Protection Agency said that the number of deaths in England linked to swine flu rose by nine to 36 in the past week, a rise partly attributable to exactly when the deaths were confirmed as being related to swine flu.

    The number of confirmed deaths has risen to 337 in the past week in Argentina. There are also indications that Mexico, which was the first country to peak, has a second wave of the virus.

    Seventy seven people have died in Australia, 117 patients are in intensive care, and 422 in hospital, with 24 395 confirmed cases, official figures show.

    Officials have always predicted that rates of infection would fall away in the summer before a surge in the autumn to coincide with the normal flu season.

    Professor Donaldson said that predicting when a second wave would hit the UK is difficult.

    “It’s guesswork really. We would anticipate that when the schools go back, at some point after that it would rise.”

    Although the government is not considering delaying the reopening of all schools after the summer holidays to limit the spread of the infection, he said that individual local closures may occur in areas with prevalent infection.

    He added that the National Pandemic Flu Service, launched two weeks ago to take pressure off GPs, is “flexible enough” to scale up or down, depending on levels of swine flu.

    He said that there is no sign that the virus is mutating into a more severe form or developing resistance to antivirals, but distribution of the pandemic vaccine will still go ahead because not doing so would mean accepting some deaths not just this year but for several flu seasons afterwards.

    Notes

    Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b3263