Ditching flu awareness ads contributed to more deaths, paper claims

A "laissez-faire" Government approach to flu, including the cancellation of a public awareness campaign, contributed to an increase in deaths, according to a scientific paper authored by the former chief medical officer.

Anti-flu campaign: cancellation of ads contributed to further deaths claims scientific study
Anti-flu campaign: cancellation of ads contributed to further deaths claims scientific study

The paper studies the differences in the impact of flu between 2010/11 and 2009/10, the year of the so-called "swine flu" pandemic that prompted the Labour government to ramp up its 'Catch it. Bin it. Kill it' campaign.

It examined why deaths in the year following the pandemic were higher at 474, compared to 361, why critical care admissions were higher at 2,200 compared to 1,700, and why public interest in flu as judged by the volume of Google searches was lower.

It concluded that "a widespread assumption of ‘mildness’ [in the second flu season] led to insufficient ongoing action to prevent influenza and hence to avoidable influenza-related deaths".

Going into detail about how the [Coalition] Government’s response was "insufficient", the paper listed the cancellation of the "traditional influenza public-awareness campaign" and the lack of warning that the pandemic virus would be circulating.

The coalition government came to power in May 2010, scrapping the £1.5 million flu campaign for winter that year among several others in a bid to cut public spending.

Other factors included the lack of a drive to vaccinate children, the lack of activation of the National Pandemic Flu Service, and the sparing use of antivirals.

Liam Donaldson, who was chief medical officer during the pandemic, was one of three authors of the paper, published in the journal Eurosurveillance.

However, in the view of the IPA's healthcare group chairman, it is difficult to make a direct link between the cancellation of the flu awareness campaign and the increase in flu deaths.

Dominic Owens, who is also planning director at Seven Stones, told Campaign: "You can’t create a direct link, but what I can say is that the public are prone to underestimating the danger of flu. It is really important to advertise to them to encourage them to get their flu jabs.

"There has been a comment from Professor David Salisbury, director of immunisation at the Department of Health, who says that the comparisons made in the research paper aren’t fair and then you start to get into two experts arguing over their own data, it’s really difficult as an outsider to look at it."

In a statement released today by the Department of Health, Professor David Salisbury said: "We disagree with some of the conclusions, which are based on inappropriate comparisons. For example, the authors have compared periods of high levels of flu that happened in completely different circumstances. The first two waves were in the summer and autumn while the third was in a particularly cold winter so it was not surprising there were more hospital admissions and unfortunately more deaths in 2010/11.

Salisbury also explained what the Government did to substitute for the seasonal advertising campaign.

"Vaccine uptake rates in 2010, when there was no national media advertising campaign, were very similar to previous years. Rather than having a paid for advertising campaign, we took a more targeted approach and asked GPs to contact their patients who were eligible for the vaccine. Once again we ran a hand hygiene campaign in an attempt to limit the spread of flu."

According to figures from the Central Office of Information (COI), government spending on health-related media campaigns fell to £56.7m in 2010/11 from £188.7m the previous year.

The news of the claims was first reported by medical title GP.

Follow Daniel Farey-Jones on Twitter @danfareyjones


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