Page last updated at 10:54 GMT, Wednesday, 29 April 2009 11:54 UK

UK homes to get swine flu advice

Iain and Dawn Askham
The Askhams were hospitalised after returning from Mexico

Leaflets about the swine flu outbreak and how to prevent its spread are to be delivered to every UK household.

The Department of Health is also urgently looking at increasing stockpiles of masks, most likely for issue to health professionals.

The results of swine flu tests on 23 people in Scotland are expected later. A Falkirk couple, who recently returned from Mexico, are the UK's first cases.

The virus is thought to have killed nearly 160 people in Mexico.

The number of swine flu cases globally is rising and the US has confirmed that the death of a 23-month-old child there is the first fatality outside Mexico.

The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has been briefed on the latest developments by the Chief Medical Officer for England, Sir Liam Donaldson, and Health Secretary Alan Johnson, who are continuing emergency talks.

Information campaign

Delivery of the government leaflets should start within days.

The World Health Organization (WHO) raised its pandemic alert status to level four on Monday - two levels from a full pandemic - after concluding there had been sustained transmission between humans.

Guidelines for doctors issued in recent months had anticipated using public information leaflets in such a situation, said BBC health correspondent Branwen Jeffreys.

But a national pandemic flu helpline set out in the government plans is not expected to be operational before the autumn.

The prime minister has said Britain is "among the best prepared countries in the world" to deal with the outbreak.


"We have been preparing for this kind of scenario for many years," he said, insisting that Britain was now taking "all the urgent action that is necessary".

A Department of Health spokesman said: "We are urgently looking into how we can increase our current stockpiles of facemasks for healthcare workers who would come into close contact with symptomatic individuals during an influenza pandemic."

Scientific evidence did not support healthy people wearing masks while going about normal life, he added.

The Scottish government says it already has a high number of masks and does not need to stockpile more.

It is advising businesses to make plans for preserving continuity of supply and asking families to consider how they might prepare for school closures, shortages of supplies and travel constraints.

The Holyrood government is awaiting the results of tests on 23 people displaying swine flu symptoms.

Fourteen have been screened after returning from Mexico or the US, while nine had been in contact with the British couple confirmed as having swine flu.

Iain and Dawn Askham, of Polmont, near Falkirk, are continuing to improve at Monklands Hospital in Airdrie, Lanarkshire, although doctors say it is unlikely they will be released on Wednesday.

Mexico: 159 suspected deaths - seven confirmed cases
US: 1 death. 64 confirmed cases
Canada: 13 confirmed cases
New Zealand: 3 confirmed cases
UK, Spain, Israel: 2 confirmed cases each
Germany: 3 confirmed cases
Countries with suspected cases: Brazil, Guatemala, Peru, Australia, and South Korea, and seven EU states

The couple were mixing with people at home and work for five days after their return from honeymoon in Cancun, before being admitted to hospital.

If any of the Askhams' friends or workmates test positive, "it will mean the infection was transmitted here in Scotland", says Scotland correspondent Colin Blane.

Eight suspected cases are under investigation in Wales - all linked to travel in Mexico - while none have yet been reported in Northern Ireland.

The Health Protection Agency said it was not releasing details about any suspected cases in England until swine flu was confirmed.

The health secretary has said a stockpile of anti-viral drugs will be used to treat patients showing symptoms, should the virus start spreading in the UK.

Sir Liam Donaldson said: "We can't make [a pandemic] go away, but what we can do through our plans, particularly our stockpiles of anti-virals, is mitigate its effect."

The Conservatives have criticised the government over the national flu helpline, which was supposed to be ready in early 2009.

Shadow health minister Stephen O'Brien said the line would be crucial in giving people access to information and medication without having to visit GPs or hospitals.

'Armageddon' Virus

Prof John Oxford, of Barts and the London School of Medicine, said he was optimistic about the UK's ability to deal with any pandemic, thanks to its large stock of anti-viral drugs.

However, he warned that the virus could mutate to make drugs or vaccines ineffective.

The virus could spread to south-east Asia where it could mix with the highly virulent H5 form to create an "Armageddon" virus, said Prof Oxford.

However, even in this situation, the UK had tens millions of vaccines which would be effective, he added.

NHS Direct has stopped call centre staff from booking new periods of time off until further notice, as it anticipates more calls. Its website has been much busier than usual.

Swine flu symptoms are similar to those produced by ordinary seasonal flu - fever, cough, sore throat, aches, chills and fatigue
If you have flu symptoms and recently visited affected areas of Mexico, seek medical advice
If you suspect you are infected, stay at home and take advice by telephone initially, in order to minimise the risk of infection

Official UK guidance is that anyone with flu-like symptoms who might have been in contact with the virus - such as those travelling in affected areas of Mexico - should seek medical advice.

But patients are being asked to minimise the risk of spreading the disease by not going to GP surgeries. Instead, they should stay at home and call their healthcare provider.

Swine flu is usually found in pigs and contracted only by people in contact with the animals.

The Foreign Office is advising against all but essential travel to Mexico and has suspended routine consular and visa services at the Mexico City embassy.

On Tuesday, all Thomas Cook and Airtours holidays to Cancun were cancelled for seven days.

Holiday firms Thomson and First Choice have cancelled outbound flights to Cancun and Cozumel, up to and including 8 May, and are repatriating British holidaymakers from Mexico.

A Thomson Airways "repatriation" flight from Cancun landed at Manchester Airport on Wednesday morning after tourists chose to end their breaks early.

British Airways is not cancelling its four weekly flights to Mexico City. However, cruise companies Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises are suspending port calls in Mexico.

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