Health board to focus on ‘at risk’ vaccinations as swine flu cases drop

Dr. Tim Patterson NHS Borders Flu Co-ordinator
Dr. Tim Patterson NHS Borders Flu Co-ordinator

NHS Borders’ flu co-ordinator has ruled out vaccinating all children against swine flu.

A number of calls have been made both locally and nationally from parents of children who have been infected by the H1N1 strain, such as the mother of a three-year-old girl who died from the virus in Manchester in December.

But Dr Tim Patterson said that NHS Borders would focus on ‘at risk’ groups – over-65s, pregnant mums and those with chronic health conditions – in accordance with guidance from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).

In an interview with TheSouthern, Dr Patterson said: “Three or four weeks ago the government asked for the JCVI’s advice on this (vaccinating all children) and they came back and said ‘no’,

“We have to weigh up giving the flu vaccination to a huge number of people who would only be mildly affected, against giving it to a very small number of ‘at risk’ individuals who will be badly affected by it.

“They came to the view that it is best to focus time, effort and resources on those who are really at risk of having severe infection because of underlying problems with their health.”

While last year saw a global swine flu pandemic, numbers infected this winter have begun to fall across Scotland, although 40 people have died from H1N1 since the start of the flu season.

Figures are not available for the Borders, but Dr Patterson explained the region has the highest vaccination rate among ‘at risk’ groups in Scotland.

He added: “The latest information is that the number of GP consultations are lower this week and the previous week which suggests it may have peaked. It is now influenza B (common flu), not H1N1, that is the dominant strain. It is good news that numbers are going down but at the same time that does not mean we should be complacent.

“There is still flu about, both H1N1 and influenza B, so it is still important for anybody in an ‘at risk’ group who is not vaccinated to get themselves vaccinated.”

And Mr Patterson says NHS Borders will not suffer the same problem as some health boards in the north of England, who have been left with thousands of doses of the vaccine which will go out of date in September. Likewise, the health board will not be caught short if swine flu returns.

Dr Patterson told us: “Most vaccines will go out of date by September because the vaccines are only produced on an annual basis.

“We are OK for vaccine supplies. We might be getting extra from the Scottish Government’s reserves but we haven’t really had a problem.

“GPs estimate how many doses they will go through on guidance from the Chief Medical Officer, so all stocks are ready in October.

“Some practices may see differing demands and if they can’t get more from community pharmacists then we have a reserve at Borders General Hospital.”

The doctor also has no fears that financial support from the Scottish Government for the flu season programme could decrease in forthcoming winters, despite spending cuts at Holyrood.

“There has never been an issue of funding problems,” he added. “I think people realise that vaccination is very important and saves a lot of money by preventing admissions to hospitals.”

Lessons can be learned, according to Dr Patterson, in how NHS Borders deals with future viruses, particularly on whether the treatment phase – which sees health boards stop testing everyone for symptoms – should be prioritised over containment.

However, the battle against swine flu continues, with the H1N1 “probably the predominant strain for a number of years”, according to Dr Patterson.

And the Newstead-based health expert does not believe the dangers of H1N1 were over exaggerated.

He said: “It is always easy to look back in hindsight but pandemic (swine) flu could have been much worse.

“A lot of people did die from it. We couldn’t really tell at the time how severe it was going to be because by definition it was a new virus.

“It has been extremely busy this year but last year it was all hands to the pump.

“At the same time it was quite rewarding because you are actually helping people. They rely on you not only for advice but also for vaccine supplies.”