The number of swine flu patients being treated on intensive care wards rose by more than 50% in the past week, according to the Department of Health. More than 750 people – 102 of them children – are currently in hospital in England owing to illnesses associated with the H1N1 virus. There are 157 patients in critical care.
The total number of deaths across the UK rose this week to 137, up from 128 at the end of the previous week. The estimated infection rate rose from 53,000 new cases last week to 78,000 this week – still well below the peak infection rate recorded in July.
The government's chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, warned that there has been a "very substantial increase in the numbers in intensive care" despite the lower prevalence.
"We are seeing a level of activity in the community which has not yet reached anywhere near the levels we were seeing in July," Sir Liam said. "But we are seeing a level of ... serious illness in hospitals which has easily surpassed the level we saw in July."
In England, there have been 97 swine flu-related deaths since the outbreak began, in Scotland 25, in Northern Ireland eight and in Wales seven.
Many of those outside hospital considered to be at high risk from swine flu may not receive their pandemic vaccinations until mid-December, the department confirmed yesterday.
People suffering from conditions such as heart disease, cancer, asthma and diabetes are due to be first in line for the innoculations, alongside pregnant women and frontline NHS staff.
Boxes of GlaxoSmithKline's vaccine, Pandemrix, have begun arriving in GP surgeries this week, although the government admits few will have received them yet. Ian Dalton, national director for flu resilience, said all GPs in England should have their first box of 500 doses in the next three to four weeks. "It's the nature of running a vaccination programme of this type," he explained.
A civil disobedience group opposed to the vaccines – TPUC – has put up posters in Birmingham hospitals warning against having the jab and claiming there are safety fears. The slogans declare: "Swine flu is not the biggest danger. It's the vaccine."
A report in the online Lancet medical journal suggests that allowing children to fall ill with seasonal flu may protect them against more dangerous pandemic strains. Vaccinating children aged six months to five years against seasonal flu might not be in their best interests, say the three Dutch doctors, led by Dr Guus Rimmelzwaan, from Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam.
They said their research showed that infection with "seasonal" influenza A viruses could induce immunity against unrelated sub-strains.
Flu jabs for healthy children are recommended in the US and some European countries, but not currently in the UK.