The Government has announced that stocks of drugs – known as antivirals – to fight the imminent threat of a swine flu pandemic are being built up to cover more than 50million people – or 80 per cent of the country’s population.
The UK is already widely recognised as one of the best prepared countries in the world, according to the Government. Previous flu pandemics have infected between 25 to 35 per cent of the population.
The key drug in fighting the disease is Tamiflu and it has, according to Health Secretary Alan Johnson, already proved effective on patients in Mexico.
Demand for Tamiflu – manufactured by Swiss drugs company Roche – is soaring. Pharmacists have warned that their supplies, which are separate from the Government stockpile, may not last, with demand in some areas up 1,000 per cent.
Meanwhile, many people are sufficiently worried by the outbreak of swine flu to seek their own supplies online, and not always from reputable sites.
So what do you need to know about Tamiflu? Here, with the help of leading experts, we set the record straight.
Can I still die if I’ve taken Tamiflu?
Yes, according to Dr John Watkins, clinical senior lecturer in the departofment of primary care and public health at Cardiff University, and a consultant epidemiologist. It is critical for a sufferer to take Tamiflu as soon as possible after developing symptoms.
The earlier you take it – within two days is best – the smaller the virus load in your body and the less chance of potentially fatal complications such as pneumonia.
Does it have side-effects?
Yes, although not everyone will experience them. ‘The most common ones are nausea, vomiting and stomach ache,’ says GP Wendy Denning of London’s the Health Doctors clinic. ‘Tamiflu should be taken after food. However, if a person is sick within an hour of taking it, it is likely to be ineffective.’
Roche revised the Tamiflu patient information last year, warning that it can cause hallucinations, delirium or abnormal behaviour, which sometimes ‘results in fatal outcomes’.
This was after the Japanese government warned doctors in March 2007 that Tamiflu should not be prescribed to teenagers for fear that it can lead to bizarre and self-destructive behaviour, after investigatingthe deaths of 18 Japanese children.
How readily available is Tamiflu?
The Department of Health has courses for 50 per cent of the population which is being conserved for treatment. It is now increasing the stockpile so pharmacists will not be able to buy any more stock.
Normal supplies of Tamiflu in pharmacists are usually relatively small as prescription is restricted by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guidelines.
The Government stocks are now being distributed to primary care trusts.
How do I get Tamiflu now?
|Tamiflu (Oseltamivir Phosphate) – is an oral anti-viral drug for the treatment of uncomplicated influenza in patients one year and older whose flu symptoms have not lasted more than two days. This product is approved to treat Type A and B influenza; however, the majority of patients included in the studies were infected with type A, the most common in the U.S. Efficacy of Tamiflu in the treatment of influenza in subjects with chronic cardiac disease and/or respiratory disease has not been established.|
|Only $ 6.90|
When was Tamiflu invented?
Tamiflu was discovered in 1999, by Gilead Sciences, a Californian biotech company set up by doctor Michael Riordan in 1987. The company focus is on antiviral drugs to treat HIV, hepatitis B or influenza. It is manufactured by Roche.
Does the current flu vaccine protect against swine flu?
It remains unclear how effective the flu vaccines would be as the new strain is genetically distinct from other flu strains.
‘There could be a cross immunity with the current flu vaccine, but we do not know that yet,’ says John Oxford, professor of virology at Barts and London Medicine schools.
Scientists in the UK and the US are racing to produce a new bespoke vaccine, but it may take months to perfect and to manufacture enough supplies to meet what could be huge demand.
A vaccine was used to protect humans from a version of swine flu in the US in 1976. However, it caused serious side effects, including an estimated 500 cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a nervous disorder leading to weakness and paralysis. There were more deaths from the vaccine than the outbreak.
Will I be able to get Tamiflu on the NHS if I don’t have flu symptoms?
The Government is giving antivirals to the close contacts of the confirmed cases. The definition of close contacts is based on Health Protection Agency (HPA) guidance, which states that individuals exposed to a probable or confirmed case within a distance of one metre or less and for longer than one hour should be offered antivirals as a precautionary measure.
The HPA is an independent UK organisation set up by the Government in 2003 to protect the public from threats to their health from infectious diseases and environmental hazards.
It does this by providing advice and information to the public, to health professionals such as doctors and nurses, and to national and local government.
How is it taken?
In tablet form, the normal dose to treat an influenza infection in adults is one 75mg capsule taken twice a day for five days, says Dr Denning. As a pre-emptive strike, it is taken once a day for ten days.
Is it the only treatment?
No, another medication known as Relenza is also available. It is inhaled rather than taken in tablet form. ‘Relenza becomes effective in minutes whereas Tamiflu takes about an hour to get into the system,’ adds Professor Oxford.
Relenza is used for pregnant women and people with certain kidney conditions who are unable to take Tamiflu.
What is the youngest age a child can take Tamiflu?
Current advice suggests they can take it from one year old.
Does it interfere with other betablockers or the pill?
Not according to Dr John Watkins. ‘Tamiflu is a relatively clean drug so it doesn’t really interfere with other medication. It has to be used with caution if anyone has any form of renal problems or impairment.’
Can my pet catch swine flu?
‘Viruses tend to be species specific,’ says Dr Watkins. ‘But the virus could affect mammalian pets such as dogs and cats. There isn’t an animal equivalent since most animal drugs tend to be modifications of human drugs.’
How does the drug work?
Tamiflu, known by its generic name as oseltamivir, is not a cure for swine flu, but can help sufferers recover by relieving some of the symptoms – as well as reducing the duration of the illness and the potential risks for serious complications, such as pneumonia.
According to John Oxford, Professor of Virology at Barts and the London School of Medicine, the drug works by inhibiting chemicals known as neuraminidase enzymes in the virus. ‘This then stops the virus from reproducing and spreading in the body, so shortening and reducing the severity of the symptoms when taken within two days of falling ill.’
What the patients are asking
We asked London GP Dr Ellie Cannon the most common questions she has been asked about swine flu in her surgery this week:
Q: I have a runny nose and sore throat. Do I have swine flu?
A: Not if you don’t have a rapidly rising temperature and you haven’t been in a high risk area: Mexico, Texas, San Diego or New York.
Q: Can I take anything to prevent getting swine flu?
A: If you are in contact with someone with a confirmed case of swine flu you can take Tamiflu preventatively. Otherwise there is nothing we can offer.
Q: What should I do if I think I have symptoms this weekend?
A: Do not go to see the doctor. Stay at home and call your GP, or NHS direct. You will be visited at home if it sounds as if you may be a high risk.