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The BBC's Karen Allen: The new treatment has alarmed the BMA
 real 28k

Friday, 2 July, 1999, 18:08 GMT
Doctors fear over flu drug

Flu sufferer New drug could combat flu

A drug that treats flu has become the first of its kind to receive a UK licence.

A person with flu who takes the drug will begin to feel better almost immediately.

However, doctors are concerned that demand for the drug could drain NHS resources.

Relenza, marketed by Glaxo Wellcome, has been shown in clinical trials to be an effective treatment for flu A and B - the serious forms of the disease.

It has been licensed for the treatment of adults and adolescents who present with flu symptoms when the bug is known to be circulating in the community.

Relenza directly targets the flu virus in the respiratory tract where it enters the body and reproduces.

The drug inhibts the enzyme that enables the flu virus to leave an infected cell and spread to other cells in the respiratory tract.

It is administered using a dry powder inhaler, known as a Diskhaler, and is taken twice a day for five days. Treatment should be started within two days of the onset of the flu symptoms.

In clinical studies Relenza shortened the duration of illness by up to 40% and reduced the severity of symptoms including fever, muscle pains, weakness, cough and loss of appetite. There were few side-effects.

Overstretching the NHS

Dr John Chisholm Dr John Chisholm fears the drug could overstretch the NHS
Commenting on the licensing of one of the new influenza drugs, Dr John Chisholm, chairman of the BMA's GP Committee, warned that if demand for the drug coincided with a holiday period such as the millennium, it could lead to the NHS being dangerously overstretched.

Dr Chisholm said that this type of drug should be an urgent priority for the new National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE), set up to advise which drugs should be made available on the NHS.

Dr Chisholm said NICE should base its recommendation not only on the clinical and cost effectivness of the drug, but also on the potential impact on the NHS.

He said: "Because these new drugs are only effective if given within the first couple of days of the onset of symptoms, and because the early symptoms of influenza are similar to those of other, milder respiratory tract infections, the launch of these drugs will potentially lead to enormous patient demand and huge additional pressures on GPs and primary care services and budgets.

"If those demands were to coincide with the Christmas and millennium holiday, the NHS could be dangerously overstretched and the contingency plans which are rightly being devised in Local Winter Planning Groups may fail to meet the need."

Advice to doctors

Glaxo Wellcome said it was producing drug management packs advising doctors how to prescribe the drug.

The company is recommending that prescriptions be confined to patients at high risk from flu, such as people with other conditions like asthma and heart disease, and the elderly.

Individuals with "important commitments" - for instance a vital business meeting - were also considered suitable for treatment.

A Glaxo spokesman said: "We are extremely concerned about the impact Relenza might have and that is why we're being clear about saying it should only be given to patients at risk.

"We are working as hard as we can and as closely as we can with physicians across the health service."

Flu is a potentially serious and highly infectious respiratory illness. Even in non-epidemic years flu claims thousands of lives.

An average of approximately three working days per patient are lost annually as a result of flu, and it may account for approximately 10% of sickness absences in the UK.

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