Flu vaccines diminishedHealth chief warns flu supplies are low

22 November 2005

Britain's stocks of winter flu vaccine are dwindling after bird flu fears apparently spurred many more patients to get a jab.

Doctors say that fears about recent cases of bird flu in Asia and Europe were probably behind a steep rise in the number of patients who've had a flu vaccination this winter. This is despite the fact that the seasonal flu vaccine is unlikely to offer any protection against a pandemic strain of bird flu.

Now Dr David Salisbury, the Department of Health's Head of Immunisation, has written to GPs warning that emergency stocks of the vaccine will soon be exhausted, and questioning whether doctors have been sticking to guidelines on which patients should be vaccinated.

He said that although the government has ordered more than enough vaccine to cover the at-risk groups - those aged over 65 and patients with certain medical conditions - doctors were requesting additional jabs.

Dr Salisbury said a record 14 million doses were available this year, which should have been 'far in excess of what was required.' But all these doses had been accounted for and there was still demand.

Patients let down

He added: 'The Department of Health is stepping in to try to ease the pressure by issuing stock from its contingency reserve, but we expect that this stock of 400,000 doses will soon be exhausted. We have been able to secure a further contingency stock of 200,000 doses that will be delivered in late January, and the department is working with manufacturers to try to secure additional vaccine.'

Dr Salisbury urged GPs to make sure all their remaining vaccine was used only to vaccinate people aged over 65 and those in the at-risk groups, such as those with long-term conditions such as diabetes.

However, the British Medical Association (BMA) said there was no evidence that doctors had been using the vaccine inappropriately.

Dr Laurence Buckman, Deputy Chairman of the BMA's GPs Committee, said: 'Patients will feel they have been let down. The government's flu campaign is designed to protect the old and the sick in advance of the flu season. GPs were told there would be enough vaccine and now it seems this is not the case. There is no evidence that family doctors have been using the flu vaccine inappropriately.

'In recent years the annual uptake for winter flu immunisation has been slightly above 70 per cent of patients eligible for a free NHS flu immunisation. This covers those over 65 and younger patients who are judged to be in an at-risk group. This year the uptake figure has been noticeably higher, probably as a result of the widespread media attention given to flu in the context of bird flu stories.

'While the current flu vaccine does not offer protection against bird flu, people are more aware of the availability of a flu jab in general.'