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Written - Influenza A H1N1 Swine Flu

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Edwina Hart, Minister for Health and Social Services

This statement updates Members on latest developments in respect of the Influenza A (H1N1) swine flu pandemic.


The latest rates for flu-like illness in Wales showed a slight increase in the rate of GP consultations in Wales for influenza like illnesses. Levels of flu-like illness remain higher than usual for the time of year. Although the planning assumptions have recently been revised downwards, swine flu still poses a serious threat and is affecting groups of the population such as young children and pregnant women who are not usually particularly at risk with seasonal flu.


We are now well into the second wave of the pandemic in the UK. Advice I have recently received suggests that the swine flu is behaving as expected and in the vast majority of cases, people are recovering well. However, as the number of cases rise, we are likely to see more people experiencing severe complications, admission to critical care facilities and more deaths. There have now been 14 deaths in Wales. This will continue to increase over time.


I wrote to you last month setting out details of the vaccination programme which was launched on 21 October and is well underway. Vaccines are now being distributed throughout Wales. GP practices are very supportive of the need to call their priority patients in for vaccination as quickly as they can.


 The Chief Medical Officer has written to colleagues in the health service to update them on logistical arrangements for delivering the vaccination programme. It is important that those in the priority groups have the vaccine when invited. It is estimated that there are 750,000 people in the priority groups in Wales, most of whom are identified as being at risk of complications from the virus.


I recently decided that all children and young people with severe learning difficulties (SLD) will be treated as a priority for vaccination as they are at high risk of severe complications.  Vaccination sessions will be held at the specialist schools and colleges and staff will also be offered protection because of the level of personal care they give.  Arrangements are already in place for GP practices to vaccinate children and young people with SLD who attend mainstream schools and colleges.


Last week, the CMO also wrote to health service colleagues with advice to help health professionals support pregnant women in making decisions about vaccination. There is good and increasing evidence that pregnant women are at a high risk of the serious consequences of swine flu. The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that 7 to 10% of all hospitalised patients with swine flu are pregnant women in their second or third trimester. The CMO’s letter contains a Question and Answer sheet to support consultations with pregnant women who may have questions and concerns. The information also covers the clinical evidence and rationale for the JCVI advice to prioritise pregnant women for vaccination.


It is very important that frontline health and social care staff take up the vaccine to protect patients and themselves, and ensure we are well placed to maintain our services should there be a significant increase in swine flu cases. Some two million frontline health and social care workers in the UK will be offered the vaccine. I was pleased to see that key partners such as the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing and UNISON recently issued a joint statement of support for the start of the swine flu vaccination programme.


A communications campaign to promote the uptake of swine flu vaccination began in Wales on November 9th.  The campaign is part of a UK-wide publicity drive, it includes targeted communication to various audiences through radio, press and public relations activity.


In respect of possible adverse reactions to vaccines, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has put in place special arrangements for reporting suspected side effects of swine flu vaccines. The Swine Flu Adverse Drug Reaction Portal was launched in July for reporting suspected side effects of Tamiflu and Relenza. It has now been extended for monitoring the safety of swine flu vaccines.


The CMO and I continue to meet representatives of the professional groups on a monthly basis. We are reassured that primary and secondary care services are coping with the demands of the pandemic and that professional bodies support our approach. I would like to thank all the staff who have responded so well, especially our primary care services, who have played a key role in managing the outbreak and the vaccination programme, and have borne the brunt of the additional activity.


I will continue to report regularly to the Assembly on these matters, and will keep Members informed if there are significant changes to the current situation.