VACCINE experts will today decide whether even more people should be offered the flu jab after new data showed that numbers of those struck down were rising rapidly.
The independent medics from the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisations will consider whether any groups not currently offered the jab are at high risk of serious illness.
They have the power to tell the Government a change of policy is needed.
Last night, doctors’ leaders said it would be hard work but not impossible suddenly to start vaccinating an entirely new group, such as the under-fives or pregnant women.
Dr Laurence Buckman, of the British Medical Association, said: “It would take a bit of organising but it is do-able”.
Of the under-fives he said: “If the Government sent letters directly to the parents of that age group it would be brilliant and make it much easier. Getting the jab to a new group can be done quickly as long as there is enough of the vaccine, which so far there has been.
“Most people are not going to die from flu. A few people are becoming very sick and a few are dying and they are mainly younger or pregnant women.
“But you have to remember the overall picture is nothing like the raging swine flu pandemic that was predicted two years ago.”
Data suggests that most sufferers who have died were not immunised.
The group doctors are most keen to vaccinate is pregnant women, who are four times more likely to suffer complications from swine flu.
The jab has been given to 68.5 per cent of over-65s. Of under-65s at risk, only 43 per cent have been vaccinated.
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Ministers last night rejected pleas to give the flu jab to the under-fives despite an explosion in cases in the past few days.
The latest figures show that an epidemic has now broken out among children under four and levels have reached a ten-year high.
But ministers and senior Government advisers last night ruled that the immunisation programme for those aged six months to five years – which was quietly cancelled earlier this year – would not have significant ‘gain’.
The decision came after the Government’s interim chief medical officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, held crisis talks with advisers from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation over whether the jab should be offered to under-fives.
The panel insisted that many youngsters contracting the virus had underlying illness and said they hoped the outbreak would have passed its peak within a month.
Over the past few days, Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has come under mounting pressure over his decision to ditch the immunisation programme for under-fives, which had been introduced at the height of the swine flu pandemic in the summer of 2009.
In an embarrassing U-turn, the Government has decided to relaunch the national flu advertising campaign that was also ditched several months ago as it was deemed too expensive.
More than £1million of public money will go toward the ‘Catch it, Bin it, Kill it’, drive with advertisements on TV, radio and in magazines. The campaign was originally launched at the start of the swine flu pandemic and reminded the public to follow basic hygiene principles.
Although there will be no mention of vaccinations in the adverts, it is hoped that they will bring home the dangers of flu thereby encouraging pregnant women and other at-risk groups to get the jab.
But critics warned that it was ‘too late’. Experts say Britain is likely to be in the grip of an epidemic across the age ranges within a week.
The latest figures show 39 people have died from flu since October, a rise of more than 44 per cent on last week. Thirty-six died from swine flu and three from another strain, flu type B. All except one were under 65 and four were under five.
The latest figures from the Health Protection Agency show that another 12 people died from flu over the Christmas period. There are now 738 people in intensive care with flu – taking up half of all available beds. That is up 60 per cent on the previous week, according to Department of Health figures.
Virus specialist Professor John Oxford, from the University of London, warned that the number of flu cases would rise as children return to school next week after the holiday and in particular the dominant swine flu strain would spread faster.
He said: ‘Children are the focus for infection in the family, because they are generally not very hygienic and they get close to each other. They are a breeding ground for viruses.’
During the 2009 outbreak, then chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson described children under 14 as ‘super spreaders’ of the flu virus.
Responding yesterday to claims that the return to school could result in the first flu epidemic for a decade, the Department of Health said: ‘There could be an increase in cases or just as easily very few cases amongst schoolchildren.’
■ Britain has a lower proportion of intensive care beds than many other developed countries, a damning report shows.
Researchers who looked at 18 developed and underdeveloped countries ranked Britain almost at the bottom of a league table with only 3.5 intensive care beds per 100,000 people. Only Sri Lanka with 1.6 beds per 100,000 and Trinidad and Tobago with 2.1 beds per 100,000 had fewer.