Swine flu: Britain’s worst case scenario – 65,000 dead

As I wait for a flight at a bustling Heathrow airport, what was probably the main port of entry for the H1N1 virus into the United Kingdom, British scientists are apparently engaged in a “terrifying guessing game” trying to work out just how bad the virus outbreak will get.

Sunday newspapers here are certainly full of some alarming statistics. The Government’s chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson suggests up to 65,000 people could die from the H1N1 virus. SOme 55,000 suspected new cases of swine flu emerged in the last week. By September, health officials estimate there could be 100,000 a day.

As a result, the Government has ordered 132 million doses of vaccine. However, drug maker Novartis has reported low yields of the antigen needed to protect people as it works on developing a vaccine, a snag that may cause delays in developing a vaccine if the results are replicated across other drug makers racing to fill the orders for hundreds of millions of vaccine doses being requested by governments around the world.

If the new fatality and infection estimates are causing some consternation in the UK this weekend, there’s also the caveat that noone really knows what course the virus will take or whether it will mutate. THius is something which has led the Independent newspaper to quite rightly focus on the science behind the worrying statistics:

From the Independent on Sunday:

“At the moment, understandably, the Government is using estimates based on previous pandemics and better-known viruses to plan how many vaccines will be needed, what NHS services will have to be put on the back burner and to make sure that public services and businesses do not collapse. But an eminent statistician has criticised the Government and the Chief Medical Officer for failing to prioritise data collection, which is essential if we are to check whether current forecasts for the disease, and our plans to deal with it, are accurate.

“According to Professor Sheila Bird, senior scientist at the Medical Research Council’s Biostatistics Unit, not enough information is being collected about people ill in hospital or about those who die – information necessary to verify the Government’s estimates about infection rates.

“A failure to collect basic data now could prove disastrous as health professionals will not have time to do so once the infection rate escalates, said Professor Bird. “We have the analytical tools but we need the basic data in order to carry out empirical checks,” she added. “Otherwise we won’t know whether the current estimates being made about infection rates and deaths are right or wrong. We have a very short window in which to get the reporting system right, before the peak, while there is still time to think.”