Britain faces 'biggest challenge in a generation' from swine flu

The country's chief medical officer warns that swine flu represents the "biggest challenge in a generation" to the country's medical services.

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LONDON // Britain's chief medical officer has warned that swine flu represents the "biggest challenge in a generation" to the country's medical services. By autumn, when a surge in cases of the H1N1 strain is expected in the northern hemisphere, Sir Liam Donaldson expects hospitals to cancel non-emergency operations as medical staff struggle to cope. With the World Health Organisation now accepting that countries might want to consider delaying the reopening of schools after the summer break to delay the spread of the pandemic, Britain will today get its first National Flu Service.

The new service in Britain, the worst affected country in Europe with more than 50,000 swine flu cases being reported a week, will enable patients to get anti-flu medication by phone or via the internet without the need to visit a doctor. Thirty people in the UK have died as a result of H1N1 in the past month, though most had underlying health problems. The vast majority of sufferers have had only mild symptoms and fully recover within three to five days. And although the death toll is expected to rise in the autumn and winter months, government statistics show that, in an average non-pandemic year, between 4,000 and 12,000 Britons die directly or indirectly because of normal flu outbreaks.

The government has warned that the number of deaths from the virus this winter in the UK could reach between 19,000 and 65,000, though the latter figure is regarded as very much a "worst-case scenario" and would be dependent on the flu mutating to a more virulent form. With the WHO calculating that swine flu has "spread internationally with unprecedented speed", Britain is preparing to advise vulnerable groups to stay away from crowds when the epidemic peaks, probably in the autumn.

Academics have suggested that school closings could help counter the spread of the virus, but Mr Donaldson said delaying the start of the new school year in September was unlikely. "Dealing with this is a marathon, not a sprint," he told the BBC. "I think it would take a lot for us to move in that direction." He added, though, that the strain of coping with a severe outbreak could put unbearable strains on the National Health Service.

"That might involve cancelling some routine procedures, but if that is necessary to treat people who are seriously ill with flu, that is what will have to be done." The greatest number of deaths has occurred in the United States where, up to yesterday, 263 people are believed to have died of the virus. Aphaluck Bhatiasevi, a spokesman for the WHO in Geneva, said that the virus had killed 700 people across the world in six weeks where, normally, it would have been expected to take six months. "We expect to see more cases and deaths in the future," she added.

In Britain, one childbirth charity advised last weekend that couples should even avoid conceiving children until the pandemic has passed - a suggestion that the government found so alarmist that it forced the charity to withdraw the advice. Mr Donaldson said yesterday pregnant women might wish "on a highly precautionary basis, to avoid large, densely populated gatherings where they have little control over personal contact".

The flu outbreak even upset the royal family's schedule yesterday. The Duke of York postponed a visit to a factory after staff at the plant were struck down with suspected swine flu. Prince Andrew was due to officially open a construction eqiuipment factory worth £40 million (Dh242m) in Uttoxeter, Staffordshire, yesterday afternoon.