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Swine flu fears

December 24, 2010

The swine flu virus which became a global pandemic in 2009 has already taken 24 lives in the UK this winter. High risk groups across Europe are being warned that H1N1 is likely to reach the continent.

A needle, representing a vaccination for the swine flu virus
Vulnerable groups are being urged to get vaccinationsImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Twenty four people have died from swine flu in the UK since October, a British public health body confirmed on Thursday.

The Health Protection Agency (HPA) said 27 people had died from confirmed flu this winter, the vast majority from the H1N1 strain known as swine flu which caused a global pandemic in 2009. Nine of those who died were children.

Earlier this week, the UK government's health department announced a total of 302 people were in intensive care with suspected influenza.

"From around the country, reports from frontline staff are showing unprecedented levels of hospitalisation with severe flu in high-risk adults," said Peter Openshaw, director of the centre for respiratory infections at Imperial College London.

Latest figures from the HPA show that confirmed cases of flu increased from 32.8 per 100,000 to 87.1 per 100,000 in the week to December 19.

Children at risk

Young people are considered at high risk. The vast majority of new respiratory disease outbreaks reported came in schools. H1N1 is the dominant strain this winter, as it was in 2009.

"H1N1 is more likely to infect young people and, unfortunately, a very small number of these may develop severe disease," a statement from the HPA said.

Increased travel and more social gatherings mean the risk of flu spreading rises around the Christmas period.

It does not appear, though, that the H1N1 virus is mutating this year. "All the evidence we have so far is that the virus has not changed," Professor Peter Watson, head of the respiratory diseases department at the HPA, said. "Recent research conducted by the HPA has suggested that a very substantial wave of activity associated with the pandemic strain is not likely."

People wearing face masks at Duesseldorf airport
Many Germans felt the fear of infection with H1N1 last winterImage: AP

Swine flu was discovered in Mexico and the United States in March 2009 and spread around the world. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that 18,000 people died from the virus. The WHO declared the pandemic over in August 2010.

It is common that a pandemic virus becomes the most common strain of influenza the following winter.

Continent on alert

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) has said that continental Europe should heed warnings from the UK.

"This is an indication of what we are likely to be seeing in other parts of Europe not too long from now," said Angus Nicoll, a flu specialist with the ECDC.

The ECDC is asking European governments to encourage people, especially those in high risk groups such as pregnant women, to get seasonal flu vaccinations.

The other, less virulent, strain which has killed three people in the UK is called Influenza B.

Author: Thomas Sheldrick (AFP, Reuters)
Editor: Rob Turner