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Flu Politics

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The prime minister admitted last week that supplies of seasonal three-component influenza vaccine in some English general practices had run out. The health minister, Andrew Lansley, had to appear on Newsnight to defend using old stocks of the single swine flu vaccine to meet demand. Leaving the ordering of vaccine to individual GP practices instead of maintaining a central stock was clearly a flawed policy.

For people in high-risk groups who want to be immunised, protection is determined by post code. Pregnant women are the group most in need of vaccination (they suffered disproportionately in the pandemics of 1918-19 and 1957, too), but they are also the least well covered: fewer than a fifth have been immunised. According to a review by the Centre for Maternal and Child Enquiries, 12 pregnant women with a confirmed virus diagnosis died during 2009 and early 2010, and 13 were treated successfully by ECMO who would have died without it. The review notes that some health professionals have been advising against immunisation, and the Department of Health changed its advice, to say that pregnant women should be offered the triple seasonal vaccine even if they had already had the single swine flu vaccine, only two days before Christmas.

A House of Commons Public Administration Committee report published on Friday was very critical of the tests used to determine which quangos would be abolished. Flu is providing a better one. The Health Protection Agency – destined for the scrap heap – is not only conducting all the crucial flu laboratory tests but also analysing their significance. Lansley proposes that these functions be moved to the Department of Health. And GPs are going to be given responsibility for healthcare commissioning: the result of their forward planning for vaccine stocks doesn’t inspire confidence in their managerial abilities.

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