Health: 254 flu deaths since September

A total of 254 people with flu have died in the UK since September, the Government said today.

The figure is up on the 112 cases reported last week.

Of 214 cases where information was available, 195 deaths were associated with the H1N1 infection.

The HPA said that, despite the jump in deaths, rates of flu in the UK appeared to be declining.

GP visits and calls to NHS direct relating to flu have decreased.

And the recording of deaths lags a week or two behind the period of peak flu activity.

The figures show a total of 418 patients with suspected flu are being treated in critical care, down from 661 last week.

Of these, 20 were under five, six were aged 5-15, 344 were aged 16-64 and 48 were over 65.

Of the 210 cases where information was available on age, seven deaths were of children under five, 11 of patients aged 5-14, 137 of those aged 15-64, and 55 of those aged 65 or over.

The latest figures come after the Government's director of immunisation

suggested GPs could be forced to hand over control of ordering flu vaccine.

Professor David Salisbury said there was a "pretty compelling" case for the Government to take charge.

His comments come just a day after the Government published draft

legislation which would see 80% of the NHS budget pass to GPs with control of commissioning services.

The Government has been forced to release stocks of last winter's swine flu vaccine to bolster this year's supplies of the seasonal flu jab.

While ministers have insisted there should be enough across England, they have acknowledged a "mismatch", with some regions having too much vaccine and others a shortage.

Angry patients wanting to be vaccinated reported being turned away from GP surgeries while some doctors said they had run out.

But GPs, who order the vaccine based on estimates from previous years, have remained adamant they have not under-ordered.

Professor John Watson, the HPA's head of respiratory diseases, said the rates of flu were "very much in line" with what was expected.

He said deaths were normally highest a few weeks after the peak period of flu infections, partly because of delays in recording the information.

He said: "Deaths lag a week or two behind the period of peak activity.

"The deaths we are reporting this week reflect activity of two or three weeks ago.

"We expect further deaths to be reported and confirmed by us over the coming weeks."

Prof Salisbury said it was clear those most at risk were in the 45-64 and 65 and over categories.

He said: "If you've got seasonal flu risk factors you are 20 times more likely to die of flu than if you don't have those risk factors."

He said this "points to the importance of the policy of vaccinating such people" with the "risk based approach".

The proportion of people in England aged over 65 who have received the seasonal flu vaccine this year has reached 71.7% while for those in risk groups under 65 the vaccination rate is 48%.

Prof Salisbury said improvements were needed among frontline health workers where the vaccination rate is just 26.1%.

A total of 128 of 159 fatal cases (81%) where information was available were in seasonal flu risk groups.

And where information was available on immunisation 59 of 71 (83%) fatal cases had not received the seasonal flu vaccine.

The figures showed the proportion of calls to NHS Direct related to colds or flu had dropped from 9.9% two weeks ago to 5.5%

Since distribution of the Pandemrix vaccine began on January 10, 254,500 doses have been dispatched, keeping pace with 256,500 orders.