LONDON //Britain appears to be heading towards its first full-blown influenza epidemic - including the deadly swine flu strain - in more than a decade.
With the number of cases requiring intensive care treatment in hospital more than doubling last week to 460, the levels of influenza are now rising more sharply than they did in 1999, when an epidemic produced a crisis over beds for the National Health Service.
Other European countries have reported a surge in cases over the Christmas holidays, prompting a warning from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control that countries anywhere in the northern hemisphere could expect a rise in flu infection.
A resurgent H1N1 swine flu virus has killed 56 and infected 1,172 people in Egypt since October 8, a Ministry of Health official said yesterday. In Sri Lanka, acurrent outbreak of swine flu has infected more than 300 people and 22 have died in the past two months, the island nation's health ministry said yesterday.
Syria has reported three deaths so far this month, according to a health ministry official. Those who died were hospitalised in December seriously ill with the disease, Hala al Khayer, the director of communicable diseases at the Syrian ministry of health told AFP, adding a fourth person was cured.
But Britain remains one of the worst affected, with the flu rate in England and Wales having tripled last week to 87.1 cases per 100,000 people in a population of 53 million.
A total of 27 Britons have died this month, 24 of them from the swine flu strain. Nine of them were children.
"The numbers now are worse than they were in winter of 1999 and the curve is steeper. When you look at the graph, the line for this year, it is incredibly unsettling - it looks like scaling Everest," said Prof John Oxford, a virologist and influenza expert at the London Hospital.
"If that trend continues I would not be surprised if we get to epidemic levels within one week."
The situation prompted Prof Dame Sally Davies, the UK government's chief medical officer, to change the advice to doctors on prescribing Tamiflu, the main anti-viral drug used to fight swine flu.
Instead of restricting the drug to high-risk groups, such as the elderly and infirm, she said that doctors should prescribe it to anyone who might benefit.
However, the surge in demand has led to pharmacists complaining that they cannot get sufficient supplies fast enough from wholesalers.
Another problem is being caused by the sudden increase in the number of flu patients requiring intensive care beds, which has led to other, major operations being cancelled.
Dr Bob Winter, the president of the Intensive Care Society, told yesterday's Daily Mail that to preserve space in intensive care, hospitals have begun postponing elective surgical procedures and serious cancer surgery.
"My own hospital [Nottingham University Hospital] has cancelled elective surgery that involves the need of critical care beds," he said. "This includes oesophagectomies and non-urgent cardiac surgery. Other areas in the country, I know, are doing the same."
The government has been criticised for cancelling its annual advertising campaign this winter, urging vulnerable people to have a flu vaccination.
But Andrew Lansley, the health secretary, has defended the government's decision, saying it was much more effective for local doctors' surgeries to contact vulnerable patients and call them in for a jab.
"There is no additional merit in a vaccination advertising campaign for the general population when there is already a targeted approach for those who need to be called," he said.
The H1N1 swine flu was first identified in Mexico in April 2009 and was quickly declared a world pandemic, causing more than 17,800 deaths in more than 200 countries, according too the World Health Organisation.