A third of GP practices have run out of flu vaccines or are running low, a worrying survey has revealed amid the worst outbreak in seven years.
The UK is currently being rocked by the virus, with killer ‘Aussie’ and ‘Japanese’ flu strains causing the most havoc and concerns.
Official figures show that at least 149 people have died across the home nations and around 4,500 have been left hospitalised from flu.
Patients considered at-risk, the elderly, young children and pregnant women, have repeatedly been urged to ensure they are vaccinated.
But new data, obtained from a survey of 400 doctors, shows GP practices – where the jab is free to those at-risk free – are starting to run out.
The Pulse magazine poll comes just two weeks after an investigation revealed some high street pharmacies were also running out of the vaccines.
Patients considered at-risk, the elderly, young children and pregnant women, have repeatedly been urged to ensure they are vaccinated
At least 10 Boots stores ‘temporarily’ ran out of flu vaccinations two weeks ago, when fears of the virus were at their highest.
The survey comes after health bosses wrote to GPs earlier this month asking them to use up their vaccine stocks.
Pulse’s figures showed one in 10 practices has already run out of vaccines – with some surgeries having used ‘100 more than last year’.
Others revealed they are having to ‘borrow from other practices’, while some spoke of how they sold 30 vaccines to a local surgery who had run out.
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said it has ‘certainly been a tough flu season so far’.
But she added that ‘we are coming to the end of the flu vaccination season now’.
‘But for the next week or so we would encourage patients who are in at-risk groups… who haven’t yet had their flu jab to get one,’ she added.
A Department for Health and Social Care spokesperson said: ‘Vaccines are the best protection we have against flu.
Fatalities have soared by 45 per cent while cases are still accelerating amid fears of the worst outbreak in 50 years that could last until March
WHAT FLU STRAINS ARE IN THE UK IN 2018?
There are many different types of flu circulating around the world, but four main types are being seen in Britain this winter.
H3N2 – Dubbed ‘Aussie flu’ after it struck Australia hard last winter, this strain is more likely to affect the elderly, who do not respond well to the current vaccine. This is one of the most common strains seen so far this winter, with at least 63 confirmed cases seen in official laboratories.
H1N1 – This strain – known as ‘swine flu’ – is generally more likely to hit children, who respond well to vaccination. This has been seen nearly as often as H3N2 so far this year, with at least 50 cases confirmed in labs. In the past it was commonly caught from pigs, but that changed in 2009 when it started spreading rapidly among humans in a major global pandemic.
B / Yamagata – This is known as ‘Japanese flu’. Only people who received the ‘four strain’ vaccine – which is being slowly rolled out after it was introduced for the first time last winter – are protected against the Yamagata strain. Those who received the normal ‘three strain’ vaccine are not protected. This strain has been seen in at least 63 lab cases so far this winter.
B / Victoria – This strain is vaccinated against in the normal ‘three strain’ vaccine, but has hardly appeared so far this winter, with just around four confirmed cases.
‘As well as getting the jab from a pharmacy, patients can also book an appointment with their GP.
‘As the public would expect we are in close contact with the vaccine manufacturers and can confirm that flu vaccine supplies continue to remain available.’
Cheaper vaccine row
The new survey also comes after leaked files revealed that health chiefs ordered GPs to order cheap flu vaccines which are ineffective against Japanese flu.
NHS England asked doctors to purchase the trivalent jab – which offers no protection against the B Yamagata strain, documents obtained by HSJ revealed.
In guidance sent to local bosses, they warned that buying the quadrivalent jab would add ‘significant cost pressures’ amid concerns over funding.
The vaccine costs the NHS £2.75 more per dose, but it would have protected against Japanese flu – responsible for half of flu hospitalisations this winter.
Those files came a day after private GPs were accused of cashing in on the flu crisis by charging £45 for a vaccine that costs the NHS just £8.
And just two weeks after health chiefs admitted the current flu jab is ineffective for over-75s and ordered doctors to switch to a new version next winter.
How bad is the outbreak in the UK?
Cases have reached their worst levels in seven years, since 2010/11, as the number of people visiting their doctor with symptoms rise by 40 per cent in a week.
The outbreak, already 16 times worse than last year’s, is piling extra pressure on an over-stretched NHS with conditions the worst some doctors claim to have seen.
Health agencies for each of the home nations monitor ‘excess deaths’ – how many more people die than expected – to give a rough estimate.
However, Public Health England, Health Protection Scotland and Northern Ireland’s Public Health Agency all provide data on how many have died in intensive care.
This means the death toll of 149 is likely to only be a fraction of the true number. A rough victim count will be tallied at some point later this year.
Where in the UK is being worst hit?
Deaths have already risen to worrying levels in Scotland, with Northern Ireland also now showing a ‘statistically significant’ amount of excess deaths.
Wales is being hit the hardest, with flu symptoms reported in GP consultations being considered ‘high’. The rest of the UK falls under the ‘moderate’ bracket.
This is how officials announce an epidemic, with each country having its own criteria per how often flu symptoms are reported per 100,000 patients.
- In England, 53.1 GP consultations per 100,000 report flu symptoms. An epidemic would be defined as breaching 108.9 per 100,000.
- In Scotland, 114.0 GP consultations per 100,000 report flu symptoms. An epidemic would be defined as breaching 418.9 per 100,000.
- In Northern Ireland, 65.2 GP consultations per 100,000 report flu symptoms. An epidemic would be defined as breaching 142.4 per 100,000.
- In Wales, 64.9 GP consultations per 100,000 report symptoms. An epidemic would be defined as breaching 75.4 per 100,000.
The most recent figures showed patients visiting their GP with flu symptoms have increased in the space of a week, with an 80 per cent jump noted in Wales.
England saw a 43 per cent jump, Northern Ireland a 25 per cent jump. Scotland appeared to have hit the peak last week, recording just a 6 per cent jump.
WHY IS H3N2 CALLED AUSSIE FLU? HOW AUSTRALIA WAS ROCKED BY THE KILLER STRAIN THAT HAS SPREAD TO UK, US AND EUROPE
Australia – whose winter occurs during the British summer – had one of its worst outbreaks on record, with two and a half times the normal number of cases.
Some of the country’s A&E units had ‘standing room only’ after being swamped by more than 100,000 cases of the H3N2 strain.
The elderly with their compromised immune systems are particularly susceptible, and a spike in cases among young children has also been shown.
The flu season in the UK and the rest of the Northern Hemisphere tends to mirror what has happened in Australia and the Southern Hemisphere.
The same strains of the virus will circulate north in time for the British flu season, which typically begins in November and lasts until March.
Flu viruses are constantly changing proteins on their surface to avoid detection by the body’s immune system – making it more deadly.
This transformation is called an ‘antigenic shift’ if it’s large enough, and can lead to a pandemic. This was responsible for the swine flu outbreak in 2009.
The Aussie flu is transforming quickly, but not fast enough for experts to describe it as a shift. However, it is slowly building up immunity.