The Department of Health will reveal new figures about the number of people in intensive care with flu, as Government advisers repeat advice urging the vulnerable to be vaccinated against the virus.
The advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) came on Thursday night as figures revealed the winter’s growing death toll – 39 people have died from the virus since October.
The Health Protection Agency confirmed 12 more flu deaths this week and the Government announced it was relaunching its “Catch it, Bin it, Kill it” campaign, telling people to catch their sneezes and coughs and wash their hands.
The Department of Health will launch its national flu vaccination campaign on Saturday, after Health Secretary Andrew Lansley defended the Government’s initial decision not to run the campaign. Labour accused Mr Lansley of carrying out a U-turn after the decision to reinstate the campaign was announced on Thursday.
For months the JCVI has been issuing advice that those in “at risk” groups – suffering from conditions such as chronic respiratory, heart, kidney or liver disease – should get the jab. Critics complained that a wider vaccination policy was not implemented but the JCVI stood by its advice.
Professor Andrew Hall said of the deaths: “JCVI noted that a large proportion of those individuals with severe disease are in recognised risk groups for influenza but unfortunately were not vaccinated. It strongly reiterated its previous advice that all individuals in risk groups should be vaccinated as soon as possible, particularly those aged less than 65 years.”
The committee also said it did not believe healthy children under five should be given the flu vaccine.
Prof Hall added: “The committee considered the issue of offering vaccination to healthy children either 0-4 years and/or 5-15 years of age. However, although there is a high incidence of influenza-like illness currently in these age groups, a significant proportion of this is due to other viruses such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
“In addition, only a very small proportion of those with severe disease are in these age groups. Based on previous seasonal influenza epidemiology, it would be hoped that influenza circulation will have subsided within a month. We do not believe that seasonal or pandemic vaccine should be used for these or other healthy person groups. The greatest gain will be achieved in increasing vaccine uptake in the clinical risk groups.”
Of the 39 deaths, 36 had swine flu and three had another strain, flu type B. All except one case were under 65 and four were under the age of five.