The claim that the British Governments ‘laissez-faire’ approach to flu has killed people is not supported by the science

If you’re British you’ll likely remember the flu ‘pandemic’ of 2009/10. Government-sponsored television adverts and a media awash with stories about the perils of flu led to the dishing out of 800,000 packets of an anti-viral drug (Tamiflu) over the phone and about half the populations dutifully had their ‘flu jab. At one point, the Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson warned that perhaps 65,000 people would cop it as a result of flu that year. His prediction turned out to be somewhat wide of the mark (total fatalities in England amounted to about 350).

The following year, flu hysteria had died down, and the new UK Government took, seemingly, a more relaxed attitude to flu. This is all documented in a study published recently which has been reported quite widely [1]. The study authors basically make the point that this supposedly ‘laissez-faire’ attitude led to an increase in hospital admissions for flu and death too.

The actual figures quoted in the study are (2009/10 versus 2010/11):

7879 versus 8797 hospital admissions (10 per cent rise)

361 versus 474 deaths (30 per cent rise)

Basically, the new Government is castigated for not dishing out Tamiflu like smarties and urging vaccination and, as a result, perhaps causing people to die.

Is it really that simple? First things first: Were the increases in hospital admissions and deaths due to a change in flu management policy or perhaps down to something else, like chance? We’ll never know, but we simply can’t assume it’s the former.

Did reduced vaccination cause the problem? Maybe, but let’s bear two things in mind. Firstly, flu vaccination is not nearly as effective as we’ve perhaps been led to believe. See here and here for some more information on this.

Secondly, according to the Government, vaccination rates were about the same in 2010/11 and 2009/10. It seems like a more relaxed attitude to pushing vaccination did not translate in to significantly reduced uptake anyway.

What about the fact that Tamiflu was not as widely ‘prescribed’? Well, the best available evidence suggests this drugs reduced symptoms of flu by about a day, and does not reduce the risk of complications. See here for more about this.

I have no particular political affiliation and am certainly not a closet supporter of the current Government or their health policies. However, the plain facts of the matter are that we really can’t tell from this recent study if the Government’s less aggressive approach to the containment of flu did us harm or good or neither.

One of the study authors turns out to be Sir Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer whose overblown estimates helped spark the pandemic pandemonium. And it was his decision, ultimately, to make Tamiflu available over the phone, even though this drug is virtually useless. Not surprisingly Professor Sir Liam took a little flack for his handling of the flu affair. He ‘stepped down’ from his Chief Medical Officer post unexpectedly in late 2009.

Seems to me that the point Sir Liam is making with this publication has not much to do with public health, and everything to do with politics.

References:

1. Mytton OT, et al. Influenza A(H1n1)Pdm09 In England, 2009 To 2011: A Greater Burden Of Severe Illness In The Year After The Pandemic Than In The Pandemic Year. Eurosurveillance, Volume 17, Issue 14, 05 April 2012

One Response to The claim that the British Governments ‘laissez-faire’ approach to flu has killed people is not supported by the science

  1. Jo 21 April 2012 at 12:09 am #

    I remember the flu panic of 2009/10. I was an employee in a London library service. Hand sanitizing gel was distributing about the building, particularly for people who worked with the public. I imagine that people were better at hand washing generally probably as a result of worry about infection. And some people would have avoided crowded places and public areas in fear of catching germs from others. Just these small changes in behaviour could account for reduction in infection/death rates. Some governments have a policy of not worrying the public, but a little worry might make us behave a bit better. I get a bit sick of being told everything’s fine and not to worry, as if I was a child. It is my opinion that the Tamaflu issue was one of reassuring the public even though it was not an effective drug. The media were clamouring for this drug and the government responded.

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