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Monday, 10 January, 2000, 12:19 GMT
Flu crisis: How bad is it?

The BBC's health correspondent Richard Hannaford


BBC Health Correspondent Richard Hannaford explains the significance of the flu crisis.


How serious is the flu outbreak?

Clearly in some parts of Britain the situation is very serious. In Scotland, Wales and northern England many hospitals are seeing twice the normal level of patients. In Northern Ireland there have been times when there were no beds available in Belfast.

Is it an epidemic?

Technically no. That's because for most of Britain the definition of an epidemic is 400 cases per 100,000 population.

Flu nightmare
As of the January 2, England had 144 cases per 100,000, Wales had 128, and Northern Ireland had 145. In Scotland, because of the way the figures are collected, an epidemic is defined as 1,000 cases per 100,000.

The figures there currently stand at 540 cases per 100,000. However some places are suffering worse than others. Already in Arran and Ayrshire they've reached epidemic levels.

But many people say the figures don't reflect the true situation, because they're a week old when they're published, and many people with flu just sweat it out at home and don't get counted in the statistics.

The Chief Medical Officer for England Professor Liam Donaldson says whatever the figures he considers Britain is in the grip of a flu epidemic and it could be the worst for ten years.

What is the importance, politically or otherwise, of the outbreak being officially designated as an epidemic?

Calling an outbreak "an epidemic" does not trigger any particular action. It simply defines the level of disease and signifies that it is unusually high. Politically though it may help the government explain why (if the NHS fails to cope with the surge in demand) the health service was put under such "unexpected" pressure.

Is this a particularly virulent strain of the disease?

It does seem to be. It's called the Sydney strain and does tend to knock people off their feet for a couple of days. It has also been responsible for some deaths.

Is the NHS struggling to cope?

Yes - but it always does during January and February. Of course some places are having a worse time than others. In general the hospitals and health centres are coping, but those that are having problems are feeling the strain.

Why?

The problem is two-fold. The NHS needs more beds at times of high demand. But it also needs more nurses to staff those beds. This year the because the flu bug is so virulent, it has led to more people needing emergency care - sometimes even intensive care. A shortage of nurses and a lack of beds has caused some hospitals to have to search for free beds in other units.

Is the flu vaccine effective? Who can get it?

The vaccine is effective, but it doesn't guarantee a person won't get flu. Anyone can have the jab, but the NHS will only provide it to young children, people whose immune system has been weakened (for example because they've had a kidney transplant) or the frail and elderly.

Have take up levels been as high as hoped?

We don't know yet how well the campaign to encourage people to get vaccinated has been. Its known there is still a lot of unused vaccine on shelves, and in previous years less than forty per cent of those targeted have gone ahead and taken the opportunity provided.

Would it make a significant impact if all those at risk were vaccinated?

Yes. The government is now considering making the flu jab a more formal vaccination programme with people being invited to attend, rather than as now, simply being told through advertising that they could have it, if they want it.

What should you do if you have flu-like symptoms?

If you're young, fit and healthy you should be able to simply stay in bed and drink lots of fluids. However, anyone else should seek medical advice. Thousands of people have called the new NHS Direct helpline. Others have visited their local pharmacist.

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See also:
10 Jan 00 |  Health
Flu: An NHS nightmare

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