New pandemic flu service to be launched

LONDON (Reuters) - A national flu service is expected to be launched later this week, with vaccines due to arrive from August to tackle the pandemic, Health Secretary Andy Burnham said on Monday.

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Burnham, in his statement to parliament, sought to reassure the public that the flu pandemic in Britain was under control and rejected accusations that the government had issued conflicting advice to pregnant women.

Twenty-nine Britons have died from the H1N1 flu virus, which is known as swine flu, and officials have said they are making plans to cater for up to a third of the population falling ill.

Burnham said the virus had spread quickly moving from isolated pockets to all parts of the country. Nine out of 10 NHS regions are now showing exceptional levels of flu like illness based on GP consultations, the minister said.

The new web and phone service is only being launched in England as the airborne flu virus has not spread at the same rate in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

“The service will go live in England by the end of this week, subject to testing, and will be accompanied by a major public information campaign,” Burnham said.

Patients will no longer have to see their GP and will be diagnosed online or over the phone after answering questions or speaking to trained staff.

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“If swine flu is confirmed they will get an authorisation number which their flu friend can use to pick up antivirals from the local viral collection point,” Burnham said.

Burnham said Britain should begin receiving vaccine supplies from August with enough becoming available for at least 30 million people by the end of the year.

“Clearly we want the vaccine available as soon as possible but we cannot compromise on safety,” he said.

Earlier on Monday, Burnham defended criticism that the government had issued conflicting advice to pregnant women.

“The advice has been clear all along that women who are pregnant should take extra precautions as they would anyways,” he told Good Morning Television (GMTV).

In total, there were an estimated 55,000 new cases of swine flu in Britain last week, although in the vast majority of cases the symptoms were mild, he said.

Pregnant women and children under five are seen to have a higher risk of contracting the virus and The Royal College of Midwives on Sunday advised women to avoid crowded places when possible -- advice which prompted confusion about whether the government was saying pregnant women should stay at home.

The Department of Health said on its website on Monday that while most pregnant women with swine flu are likely to have mild symptoms, they have a higher risk of developing complications than most people.

Editing by Avril Ormsby