Page last updated at 16:13 GMT, Thursday, 22 October 2009 17:13 UK

NHS told to brace itself over flu

By Nick Triggle
Health reporter, BBC News

Man sneezing
Swine flu cases have started to rise steeply

The NHS has been told to brace itself for action after a steep rise in swine flu infections.

The number of new cases reported in England over the past week has nearly doubled to 53,000. In Scotland, there was a slight rise to 14,650.

It comes as more and more people are being admitted into intensive care and the number of deaths hit 128 in the UK.

Ian Dalton, head of flu planning at the NHS, said if the rises continued critical care would be expanded.

Plans have been drawn up over the last few months to double the number of intensive care beds to over 4,000.

What we are starting to worry about is the sustained pressure over the winter
Sir Liam Donaldson, chief medical officer

And with the UK well into the second peak, concerns are being raised about the sustained pressure that will be put on the health service.

Mr Dalton said: "If current trends continue we are going to have to surge capacity. My message now is that the NHS must be ready."

In England, there are 99 people in critical care beds - the highest since the pandemic began.

But it is the rate of admission to these specialist beds which is causing particular concern.

During the summer, about 1 in 10 patients in hospital with swine flu ended up in critical care, compared with one in five now.

'Sustained pressure'

Sir Liam Donaldson, the government's chief medical officer, said the pattern emerging on intensive care wards was "mystifying".

There are no signs the flu strain has mutated to become more deadly - indeed the latest worst-case scenario for total deaths over the winter has been reduced from 19,000 to 1,000.

But Sir Liam said: "What we are starting to worry about is the sustained pressure over the winter.

"The NHS has never before had a run from mid July to March and April with intensive infectious disease like this."

Latest estimates suggest there could be another 35,000 admissions in the coming months - more than 5,000 of which could require intensive care support.

Sir Liam also said while the 1,000 death-toll was low even compared to the normal number of deaths from seasonal flu, which normally stands at about 6,000 to 8.000, the tragedy was that the victims of swine flu were often young.

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