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Britain, major travel hub, hard hit by flu pandemic

By Kate Kelland
/ Source: Reuters

By Kate Kelland

The global H1N1 flu pandemic is hitting Britain harder than other European countries, mainly because Britain is a hub for international travel and communications, health experts said on Thursday.

Some 31 people have died in Britain from the virus, compared with only four in Spain and none in the rest of the European Union, but experts warn that the H1N1 flu wave now hitting Britain is likely to sweep through other countries soon.

In the past week 100,000 suspected new cases of the flu have been reported in Britain, the government said, nearly double the 55,000 suspected new cases in the previous week.

Other European countries should prepare for a similar, or even larger, surge in the number of cases in the coming months, said Professor Angus Nicholl of the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control in Stockholm.

"Look at the UK. This is what you are going to have to face later in the year, but with a lot more cases than the UK is seeing at the moment," Nicholl told Reuters.

The British government launched a National Flu Pandemic Service on Thursday to speed up access to drugs for flu sufferers, who will be able to get diagnosis and prescriptions online and by telephone.

According to figures released by the ECDC earlier this week, there are almost 18,000 confirmed cases of H1N1 A flu in the 31 countries in the European Union and the European Free Trade Association -- almost 11,000 of them in Britain.

Health authorities in some of the hardest hit areas of Britain such as London and the central city of Birmingham say doctors are being overwhelmed, with hundreds of calls a day from worried patients. Churches and schools have changed their routines to combat the spread of the disease.


The government's Chief Medical Officer, Liam Donaldson, said children under 15 were emerging as "super spreaders" of the virus, while those over 65 seemed to be largely avoiding it.

Professor Dingwall, director of the Institute for Science and Society at Nottingham University, said Britain was paying the price for its status on the world stage.

"It reflects our position as a crossroads of international communications," he told Reuters in a telephone interview.

"The trade and tourism links that the United Kingdom has with the rest of the planet are more diversified than almost anywhere else ... in Europe."

Donaldson said Britain's relatively efficient surveillance systems may mean it is identifying more H1N1 cases than other European countries. He also said there was a degree of bad luck -- "the X factor" -- in the way Britons were picking up and spreading the virus.

"But one is thing is almost certain," he said. "It will eventually turn up in most countries."

The airborne H1N1 virus, which can be treated with antiviral drugs such as Roche Holding's Tamiflu or GlaxoSmithKline's Relenza, has been diagnosed in tens of thousands of people worldwide, and has killed more than 700,

people, according to the World Health Organization.

Many of the deaths have been in north and south America, most of those in Britain have been of people with existing serious medical problems, and the vast majority of those who have contracted the virus have had only mild symptoms. Many recover without any medical treatment.