Chief medical officer now optimistic about the scale of the epidemic
Britain's swine flu outbreak is slowing down, possibly as the result of a "lucky break" in the way the virus has behaved, the chief medical officer said today.
Sir Liam Donaldson, who has been generally cautious in his weekly predictions on the likely course of the epidemic, was more optimistic as he suggested during a news conference that the peak number of cases may be lower than previously thought.
The rate of increase looks to be nothing like the weekly doubling of cases that experts had predicted. Last week, there were 18,000 new cases of swine flu, rising from 14,000 the previous week and 9,000 the week before that.
"We are well into the second wave of pandemic flu, having had the first wave in July, but it's proving so far to be a slow burner," Donaldson said. "It's possible that it might peak at a lower level – and an earlier level – than expected which would be incredibly positive news.
"It means we could get the vaccine programme well under way. If this virus has another peak up its sleeve, as in 1968, we might be able to avert that completely."
"We may have got a lucky break in how the virus has behaved at the start of our flu season and we may be able to get the vaccine out there before our flu season really gets under way," said Donaldson. "I'm looking at it very optimistically."
The body which advises ministers on vaccination - the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation - has been meeting today and a key point of discussion has been whether to extend H1N1 swine flu vaccination beyond at-risk groups. If this does happen, it would be healthy children who would be the first group targeted, on the grounds that children are the most likely to catch the disease, and the most likely to require hospital treatment.
Vaccination against seasonal flu has already begun in many parts of the UK and swine flu jabs will be sent to GPs from later this month. Sir Liam said:
"There's been a supply of half a million doses of Baxter vaccine in warehouses for some time. We expect to get considerable numbers of the GSK vaccine quite soon. The only doses here so far (of the GSK vaccine) have been for clinical trials and there hasn't been a major delivery yet."