There is evidence that a Tamiflu-resistant strain of swine flu has spread from person to person in a South Wales hospital in the UK and it appears that some of them acquired the illness while in hospital.
The National Public Health Service for Wales (NPHS) announced on Friday that five patients at the University Hospital of Wales, Cardiff have been diagnosed with swine flu resistant to Oseltamivir (Tamiflu).
The patients were all being cared for in a unit that treats patients with severe underlying health conditions, and three of them appear to have caught swine flu in the hospital, said the NPHS.
All the Tamiflu-resistant swine flu patients have now been treated with an alternative antiviral, and all other patients in the same unit have been tested for swine flu.
Dr Roland Salmon, Director of the NPHS Communicable Disease Surveillance Centre, told the media that:
“The emergence of influenza A viruses that are resistant to Tamiflu is not unexpected in patients with serious underlying conditions and suppressed immune systems, who still test positive for the virus despite treatment.”
“For the vast majority of people, Tamiflu has proved effective in reducing the severity of illness,” he added.
Salmon stressed that vaccination is still our most effective tool for preventing swine flu and urged people identified as being at risk to look out for their invitation to be vaccinated and go down to their GP surgery.
Chief Medical Officer for Wales, Dr Tony Jewell, said:
“We know that people with suppressed immune systems are more susceptible to the swine flu virus, which is why they are a priority group under the first phase of the vaccination programme in Wales which is progressing at pace.”
Jewell said the UK monitors anti-viral resistance strictly, so it can be stopped early, investigated and managed. He said the fact these cases have been found shows that the system is working and patients should be reassured.
“Treatment with Tamiflu is still appropriate for swine flu and people should continue to take Tamiflu when they are prescribed it,” said Jewell, stressing that:
“It’s also important that good hygiene practices are followed to further prevent the spread of the virus.”
Uninfected patients and staff at the unit have been offered swine flu vaccinations, and patients due to be treated at the unit are being advised to go to their GP and be vaccinated before coming to the hospital.
The authorities are also checking members of the households of infected patients and offering them treatment should symptoms arise.
Experts are not surprised that a Tamiflu-resistant strain has emerged, and say it was only a matter of time before it happened.
However, it is important to stop it spreading since Tamiflu, which can shorten the duration of illness and reduce the risk of complications, is an important first line of defence.
The UK has bought enough Tamiflu to treat about half the population, according to a BBC report.
The deputy director of biomedical science at Queen Mary, University of London, Dr Ronald Cutler, told the BBC that reducing the time it takes to make new vaccines and improving ways to control and treat the disease “would be a way forward”.