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Report condemns flu campaign axe

The Government's decision to scrap the flu awareness campaign may have contributed to a host of preventable deaths, the former chief medical officer has said.

In a report, Professor Sir Liam Donaldson concluded there were more fatalities and admissions to hospital in England in the winter of 2010/11 than during the flu pandemic the previous year.

This was "likely" to have been caused by "striking" differences in the Government response and a "laissez-faire" approach adopted during the second outbreak, the report concluded.

The paper, published in the journal Eurosurveillance, found there were about 10% more hospital admissions, 30% more deaths and 30% more critical care admissions in the second year than in the pandemic year, when there were two waves of illness. However, it revealed a drop in the number of GP consultations - by around 35% - between the two periods.

"The differences in the Government response over the two years were striking and likely to have contributed to the increased impact of the disease in the second year," the report said.

It said the Government's response was "highly assertive" in the pandemic year, when "strong" public awareness and education campaigns were run, but added: "In the influenza season that followed the pandemic year, the approach was laissez-faire. The traditional influenza public awareness campaign was cancelled. There was no attempt to warn about the likelihood that the pandemic virus would be circulating (thus affecting younger age groups).

"There was no drive to vaccinate children, although it is unclear to what extent this was influenced by emerging concerns about pandemic vaccine safety in children and adolescents. The National Pandemic Flu Service was not activated and antivirals were not used extensively."

There were 474 flu-related deaths in 2010/11 compared with 361 in 2009/10, the paper found. There were also more critical care admissions (2,200 compared with 1,700) and more hospital admissions (8,797 compared with 7,879).

Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said patients "paid the highest price" for the Government's decision to abandon the flu awareness campaign: "Labour and public health experts repeatedly warned Andrew Lansley that axing the annual flu awareness campaign would have severe consequences. Now patients may have paid the highest price for his inability to listen."

Professor David Salisbury, director of immunisation at the Department of Health, said the Government disagreed with some of the report's conclusions. "The authors have compared periods of high levels of flu that happened in completely different circumstances," he said. "The first two waves were in the summer and autumn while the third was in a particularly cold winter so it was not surprising there were more deaths and hospital admissions in 2010/11."

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