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Swine Influenza

Volume 492: debated on Tuesday 12 May 2009

9. What his most recent assessment is of the level of risk posed to public health by the current outbreak of swine influenza. (274106)

It is hard to assess the risk posed by swine flu as the clinical picture remains unclear. There are some indications that the virus may cause only mild symptoms, and that, in some cases, people have recovered without antivirals. However, an overall prognosis for the impact of the virus is still difficult to determine at present and it is still too early for confident predictions about the possible severity of the flu in the United Kingdom.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. I read with great interest the brochure that the Department circulated, and it is helpful. However, I am sure that my right hon. Friend agrees that there is some difficulty with the substantial overlap between the symptoms of normal flu and those of swine flu. What would she recommend that my constituents do if they seem to have a severe case of what may well be normal flu? Should they go to their GP, ring a helpline or wait and see?

What I would say to my hon. Friend and, in particular, to anybody who has been following the media coverage is that either there has to be contact with somebody who has travelled to Mexico or the person affected has to have travelled to Mexico. They should then phone for advice, from either their GP, NHS Direct or the flu service line.

Earlier the Secretary of State said that the isolate had been identified and he spoke about the work of Potters Bar on the vaccine. What international co-operation has there been between the Department and other countries, or are we at risk of seeing vaccines being almost completed in countries around the world, yet without any proper understanding between them?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are co-operating with our European neighbours, the World Health Organisation and the United States. That information is shared, because the isolation of the virus in the UK, for instance, is the isolation of the virus that happens to be in the UK, and it is compared with the isolates of the virus in, for instance, the United States. There is international co-operation to ensure that the development of a vaccine, if that is possible, is shared equally on a world basis.

The right hon. Lady will know that, through its modelling, which has been published in the journal Science, the Imperial College team has said, albeit with great uncertainty at this stage, that the information points to a pandemic, potentially at the lowest end of the scenarios that we have discussed for a number of years in the contingency plan. That would imply something in the order of one quarter more of the population being affected, with perhaps four in 100 people affected being hospitalised and perhaps four in 1,000 people affected dying. Given that, will the right hon. Lady confirm that we need to continue the counter-measures against the virus, in order to seek to contain it, and, in particular, that we will maintain post-exposure prophylaxis until such time as the virus is spread in the community and that we will pursue household prophylaxis thereafter?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because I know that he and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have been able to speak about the issue a number of times. I would like to confirm to him what the Secretary of State has already said about containment before—and if—the flu moves to sustained person-to-person transmission across communities. I absolutely confirm to the hon. Gentleman, particularly given that the World Health Organisation is at phase 5, that we will continue that planning until we have a much better understanding of the virus. We would then be able to share the details of that planning with him, including what steps should be taken after that. It is crucial that we continue to share that information.