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UK begins swine flu vaccinations with GSK jab

Published on 21/10/09 at 12:07pm

The UK's swine flu vaccination programme began today with NHS hospitals offering the jabs to frontline healthcare workers and patients in at-risk categories.

The programme will be expanded over the next few weeks, with GP surgeries receiving their first supplies of the vaccine from Monday 26 October.

The vast majority of people will be offered GlaxoSmithKline's Pandemrix vaccination, which is effective after one dose but made using chicken eggs - people allergic to eggs will instead be offered Baxter's Celvapan, which requires two doses three weeks apart.

Health Secretary Andy Burnham said: "Our best line of defence against swine flu is the vaccine. I'm very pleased to say that the UK is one of the first countries in the world to start vaccinating against this virus.

"The independent committee of experts in the UK has recommended that all those in the at risk groups should be offered the swine flu vaccine. It is also being offered to frontline health and social care workers to protect them and their patients and ensure the NHS is staffed should it come under pressure this winter."

The first wave of the programme against the H1N1 virus will see around 11 million people offered the vaccine, including some two million frontline health and social care workers.

Patients in groups at most risk from swine flu - such as seriously ill hospital patients, people with chronic illnesses like diabetes, or pregnant women - will also head up the queue for the jabs.

Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson said: "This is the first pandemic for which we have had vaccine to protect people. I urge everyone in the priority groups to have the vaccine - it will help prevent people in clinical risk groups from getting swine flu and the complications that may arise from it.

"It's important for frontline health and social care workers to have the vaccine. It will help prevent them and their families getting the virus from patients, it will stop them passing the virus onto their patients, it will potentially protect them from mutated strains and it will reduce the disruption to NHS services caused by people being absent due to illness."

Many patients will be contacted by their GP, although Sir Liam told the BBC there was concern that Communication Workers Union industrial action, scheduled for the end of this week, could disrupt these plans.

"We're a little bit worried about the postal strike," he admitted.

There will be no roll-out of vaccinations to the general population any time soon. "At this stage we haven't enough vaccine to move beyond the priority groups," Sir Liam confirmed.

"We won't have finished vaccinating them until the end of November but then we would be looking at extending the programme."

Two weeks ago Baxter's Celvapan became the latest H1N1 pandemic-influenza vaccine to receive EU-wide marketing authorisation.

Focetria, produced by Novartis, and GlaxoSmithKline's Pandemrix were green lit last month.

And this month Roche raised its growth prediction for the year, in part because of record sales of its own anti-viral flu drug Tamiflu.

Demand from the swine flu epidemic led to Tamiflu sales of CHF 994 million in the third quarter of 2009, a near tenfold increase on the same period of 2008.

All H1N1 vaccines have been fast-tracked by the EMEA under the so-called "mock-up" procedure.

Sir Liam stressed that the drugs were safe and urged health workers in particular to have the jab when offered.

The usual seasonal flu jab campaign, targeted at older people, will run alongside and it is possible to have the jabs at the same time, he added.

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