Flu vaccine could be ordered by government

Central purchasing of the vaccine is likely after some GPs run out of stock

Flu vaccine is likely to be centrally purchased by the government in the future, following the confusion this winter resulting from some GPs failing to order sufficient stocks for all patients who needed it.

Taking the job of ordering flu vaccines away from GPs could be seen to be a move in the opposite direction of travel from the coalition government's NHS reforms. The NHS bill published today aims to put far more control – and 80% of the budget – in the hands of GPs.

But Professor David Salisbury, who is the government's head of immunisation, said there was a "pretty compelling" case for the government to take charge.

Meanwhile, in the House of Lords, a health minister confirmed that the government was looking at taking over the responsibility. At question time, Lord Howe said the change would put flu vaccines in line with others.

"Almost all vaccines, excepting seasonal flu vaccines, are procured centrally," he said. "Central procurement does provide a cost-effective arrangement and can take account of the variations in supply and demand.

"It also gives us the ability to track where the batches of vaccine have gone. So, we are looking at taking into the Department of Health the procurement of the seasonal flu vaccine."

This year's shortages were thought to be the result of some GPs underestimating the effects of swine flu, which the current vaccine protects against, and the numbers of people who would need to be vaccinated.

The government advised that all pregnant women should have the jab. Many families wanted to have their small children vaccinated as well, which was the advice during last year's swine flu pandemic, though it has now been changed.

This year's flu outbreak looks to be attenuating, however. Figures from the Health Protection Agency "indicate that flu activity across the UK is now declining", it said in a statement.

There have been 254 deaths from flu since the season began in October. Although 142 deaths were reported today, most of them occurred over the Christmas and New Year break and have only just been confirmed.

Details are available for 214 of those who died, said the HPA. Among that group, 195 had H1N1 swine flu. Most were under 65 years of age – flu normally hits those over this age hardest, but swine flu attacks a younger group. Eleven were between five and 14 and seven were under-fives.

Most of those for whom the information is available appear to have been people who would be considered "at risk" because of underlying health problems – 128 out of 159, which is 81%.

Professor John Watson, head of the respiratory diseases department at the HPA, urged those at risk to get vaccinated.

"Our latest flu report suggests levels of flu are declining across the UK but nonetheless flu is still circulating in the community and the message remains that people in an at-risk group should get the seasonal flu vaccine – it's not too late to protect yourself from flu this season," he said.


Sarah Boseley, health editor

The GuardianTramp

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