A 38-year-old woman has become the first person with swine flu to die in Britain. Here Rebecca Smith, Medical Editor answers questions on what this means.
Q – Why did the woman in Scotland die when experts say most people suffer mild symptoms?
A – It is understood the woman had underlying health conditions including suffering from seizures which increases the likelihood of complications and the majority of deaths from swine flu have been in people with long-term ill health.
Q – Did she die because she was pregnant and the baby was born early?
A – Experience of the larger swine flu outbreaks in Mexico and the United States has shown that pregnant women are at greater risk of complications if they contract the virus. However it is not known if the woman contracted while she was pregnant or after she gave birth.
Q – I thought flu only killed old people, but this woman was only 38. Isn’t that unusual?
A – Swine flu is behaving slightly differently to normal seasonal flu in the age range it is striking. The majority of cases and deaths have been in the 20 to 54 age bracket. It is thought that older people may have been exposed to a similar flu virus and may have some residual protection.
Q – Does this mean the virus is more dangerous?
A – The virus itself has not changed and has remained stable since it was first discovered. Deaths from complications due to flu are to be expected, even with normal winter flu. In a bad flu season around 22,000 people die from complications such as pneumonia. As the UK has now seen more than 1200 cases of the H1N1 swine flu virus it was expected there would be a death.
Q – Has this changed the Government’s response to the pandemic?
A – The death in itself has not changed anything. However in Scotland and in England the number of cases has been rising sharply and there are now clusters of cases not connected to travel abroad. This means that the virus is beginning to break out of the containment measures used so far and is getting into the general community. This is also to be expected but experts do not believe there will be widespread infections in Britain until the Autumn.
Q – Should I buy Tamiflu and start taking it?
A – No, the advice is that if you or anyone in your family has flu-like symptoms to contact your GP or NHS Direct for advice. There is Tamiflu available for people who need it. Tamiflu is a prescription-only drug and it should not be possible to obtain it without a prescription. Buying medicines online is hazardous because a large proportion of products are counterfeit and may not work or may even be harmful. Taking Tamiflu in an attempt to avoid catching flu is not advised because it would have to be taken continually and the medicine can cause side effects such as nausea