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Poms Dropping Like Flies As Flu Epidemic Bites

The UK is in the grips of what is being desribed by authorities as a full scale killer-flu epidemic. People are dropping like flies and up to 20,000 could die. John Howard reports

Last night, Dr Sam Everington, a member of the British Medical Council, said the health service should be planning for thousands of deaths over the coming weeks. But health secretary, Alan Milburn says that he was confident the health service could cope.

"Nobody knows when this will peak but we are now certain that the official figures are dramatically under-reporting the extent of the flu," Milburn said.

Only people who visit their doctors are officially recorded as flu victims but the goverment's own advertising campaign implored people not to go to their already over-stretched doctors if they have flue symptoms.

The government's chief medical officer, Professor Liam Donaldson, said that 300 people in every 100,000 now have the flu. The government's offical figures are 144 in every 100,000 which many, including Professor Donaldson, are saying is grossly under-estimated.

One sure sign of the scale of the outbreak is that the health services' new medical advice phone line has already taken more than 200,000 calls from people with flu-like symptoms. These people have not necessarily been to their doctor and are not reported as flu victims. Many "spotter" surgeries used to compile flu statistics are also closed for the holidays.

But hospitals throughout the UK are stretched to the limit, wards are full, staff are stressed, surgery has been cancelled and refrigerated trucks are parked in hospital carparks to take the over-flow of bodies from morgues who can take no more.

Health authorities in Europe are now on red alert with Holland already experiencing a large influx of flu victims.

The last flu epidemic in the UK was in 1989 when 26,000 people died. The last worldwide epidemic was in 1968 but the worst pandemic claimed between 25 and 40 million lives over the winter of 1918-19.

The Tories are increasing their attacks on the Government for failing to plan adequately for the crisis. Liam Fox, the shadow health secretary said, " If Alan Milburn thinks services are well prepared he is the only person who does. GP's and patients have been warning about this for months."


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