EU pushes vaccination amid rising flu activity

Dec 22, 2010 (CIDRAP News) – The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) today said flu transmission is increasing across the European Union (EU), led by a spike in the United Kingdom, and warned people in recommended groups to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

Dr Marc Sprenger, ECDC director, said in a press release that infections with 2009 H1N1 and influenza B viruses have produced some severe cases in the UK and that none of the people who died had been immunized with either the monovalent H1N1 or trivalent seasonal flu vaccine.

While acknowledging that national authorities vary in their flu prevention recommendations, Sprenger said vaccination is the most effective step and that groups targeted by countries for immunization should be vaccinated right away. He emphasized that this year's seasonal flu vaccine is a good match with circulating flu strains.

In a separate flu update, the ECDC said doctor's visits for flu-like illness are rising in 14 EU countries, with the 2009 H1N1 and influenza B predominating. Typically flu epidemics in the EU move from west to east, it said.

The ECDC said the UK experience so far suggests a flu season profile that is similar to what Southern Hemisphere countries such as New Zealand experienced this year and that seems consistent with patterns seen during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. Most people have mild or no illness, with severe disease more common in people with underlying risk factors and in those younger than 65.

The agency said the UK flu experience so far should serve as a lesson for other countries bracing for an uptick in flu activity. For example, the UK has prepared intensive care units and extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) services to handle more patients, emphasized seasonal flu vaccines for pregnant women and others at risk for flu complications, and advised doctors to prescribe antiviral medication for sick patients.

England's chief medical officer yesterday urged that existing antiviral recommendations be relaxed in England and Wales to allow general practitioners and other providers to prescribe them at their discretion, the UK's Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) said yesterday in a statement. The Health Protection Agency had recently issued new antiviral guidance that said the drugs should be prescribed to those in risk groups, ideally within 48 hours, and that prophylactic use in healthy people under age 65 is not recommended.

In other developments, Dr Steve Field, who recently chaired the RCGP, today raised concerns about the UK National Health Service's ability to handle the rapid spread of flu, given that so few people, including healthcare workers, have been immunized, the London-based Guardian reported.

Calling vaccine uptake "shockingly low," he said it was a mistake for the country not to have had a public awareness campaign to push the importance of seasonal flu vaccination, the Guardian reported. The story also said the Department of Health reported that more than 300 people are in critical care beds with flu.

Health officials countered that the outbreak was under control, according to the Guardian report. However, Dr Sally Davies, England's chief medical officer, said government curbs on media spending forced the Department of Health to depend on primary care trusts and general practitioners to highlight the importance of vaccination.

Dr Lindsey Davies, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health, said the lack of a national campaign could be contributing to low flu-vaccine uptake. "And that's regrettable," she said.

See also:

Dec 22 ECDC health information statement

Dec 22 ECDC press release

Dec 16 CIDRAP News story on UK flu activity

Dec 22 Guardian story

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