The flu outbreak gripping Britain is set to become a "children's epidemic" as new figures show that the number of under-fives being brought into doctors' surgeries with the illness doubled over the Christmas period.
With schools beginning to reopen this week after the Christmas and New Year break, experts believe the spread of the virus will escalate, taking the number of cases to epidemic level within the next week to 10 days.
NHS hospitals and GP surgeries are already under strain from the sharply rising levels of swine flu and other flu strains afflicting the population over the holiday period. The figures, collated by the research centre of the Royal College of General Practitioners, show there is no sign of a letup in the days ahead. Many hospitals are on "black alert" – cancelling non-urgent operations and running short of available intensive care beds.
Some 738 people are reported to be in intensive care this weekend, including 42 children under five, up from 26 on the previous week.
The rise in the number of young children catching flu has led to further attacks on the government which has already been criticised for delaying the seasonal advertising campaign promoting flu vaccines, and for showing complacency over the limited uptake of vaccines among at-risk groups. Children were not stressed as a priority group while pregnant women, also now emerging as suffering unusually high levels of flu, were only given easier access to vaccines in the past week.
Only 23% of healthy children aged under five who are eligible for free flu vaccinations have taken them. The Department of Health was also slow in allowing GPs to use their own judgment in giving the vaccine to children over five, rather than limiting jabs to those with asthma or other severe chest complaints, heart conditions or diabetes.
Across England the highest incidence of flu is in the under-four age group – 184 cases per 100,000 babies and infants. Among the over-65s, the incidence last week was 36 cases per 100,000, while the average across all ages was 124 per 100,000 – a rise of 50% on the previous week. An epidemic is defined as 200 cases per 100,000 of population.
The new figures only include those patients who have attended their doctors' surgeries. Professor Steve Field, a Birmingham GP, said many people may not be seeking treatment because opening times are limited over the holiday period and are instead coping with their illness at home.
"It will be next week when people start to go back to work and to school that we will, I suspect, see the sharpest rise, when we will really see this become the children's epidemic," said Field, former chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners. "The key message is that it is not too late to get the vaccination. Parents who have a child with asthma or diabetes or chest disease must really take up this vaccination. We know the flu could have implications for these children's health and without the jab they will be more at risk.
"Most GPs will know who their patients are who are candidates for the vaccine, but many people who may have moved or are yet to register with a GP really must not be left behind.
"I find it amazing, too, that so many health professionals forget about this. It is their duty to patients and the NHS to protect themselves and their patients and I would also especially urge them to get vaccinated. We need them and we cannot afford for the NHS to start seeing its staff go sick at such a time."
Field pointed to the successful uptake of the flu jab among the over-60s and said that this winter's figures showed them to be a far better protected part of the population than others.
The Department of Health reiterated that there was no national shortage of the flu vaccine, despite reports of some surgeries running out.
A spokeswoman said: "GPs have already been asked to check their stocks. If they have run out, they have already been advised to work with neighbouring practices or the PCT [primary care trust] to obtain further supplies. The vaccine manufacturers and suppliers still have stocks available for ordering."http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/ ... ared-virus