Flu epidemic is imminent, East End professor warns

A FLU epidemic could break out within a week, a leading East End professor has warned.

John Oxford, of Bart’s and the Royal London Hospital Trust, said children are especially at risk because they are less likely to have already come into contact with the virus that is currently spreading.

The last epidemic – the term used when there are at least 200 cases per 100,000 people – was recorded in 2000.

An increase in the number of flu-related admissions was recorded at The Royal London Hospital over the past week but swine flu cases have dropped in the last 24 hours.

Professor Oxford, a leading virologist at Queen Mary, University of London, said: “The infection rates in the five to 14-year-old age group have almost reached epidemic levels already, and I think they will go up.

“The over-60 age group has got immunity because they have probably seen this virus before.

“Younger people are vulnerable because they haven’t seen this virus before – but they are more resilient.”

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A spokeswoman for The Royal London said: “We are monitoring the situation closely and are taking appropriate measures to test and treat patients with influenza-like symptoms who require hospitalisation. We also have stringent measures in place to reduce the risk of the infection spreading to other patients.”

In-patients at the hospital are being tested for the seasonal flu viruses and swine flu.

Where appropriate, anti-viral drugs are being given to patients with underlying health problems.

Pregnant women, the frail and elderly and those with respiratory problems are being kept in and treated in isolation.

Across the country last week, cases of flu rose by more than 40 per cent, figures from The Royal College of General Practitioners showed.

In the seven days leading to December 26, there were 124 cases per 100,000 people, compared to 86 per 100,000 the week before.

Some experts are now predicting cases could rise once more when children go back to school following the Christmas break.

The Department for Health said the figures are in keeping with what is expected during the winter period.

Meanwhile, an NHS pressure group said it is getting reports of intensive care units in London having up to a quarter of their beds filled with flu cases.

Geoff Martin, chairman of Health Emergency, said: “Cuts in recent years to bed and staff numbers have left the NHS dangerously exposed and there is no doubt that many ITUs (intensive therapy units) will soon have to close to new admissions.”

Barts and The London trust said it did not have a breakdown of how many ITU beds are currently occupied by patients with flu.

Earlier this winter, NHS Tower Hamlets ran a campaign encouraging pregnant women and elderly people to get their free flu jab.

The Royal London’s chief medical officer is advising those with flu-like symtoms to stay at home, take over-the-counter flu remedies and only contact their GP if they have an underlying medical condition or attend A&E if they are seriously ill.

People with flu-like symptoms, vomiting or diarrhoea are also asked not to visit patients.