Lessons learned leave us in healthier state

SCOTLAND’S health secretary Nicola Sturgeon handled last year’s swine flu epidemic with competence and authority. Her updates and press briefings helped to inform and reassure in equal measure. It was a major public worry at the time. Overall in Scotland 69 people died with swine flu, and 1,542 were hospitalised. But was there a misjudgment on the likely spread of the outbreak and an over-reaction on the ordering of drugs?

According to figures revealed by Ms Sturgeon yesterday, 3.5 million doses of the antiviral drugs Tamiflu and Relenza were made available. Before the pandemic 1.38 million doses had already been stockpiled. Of these, 93,000 were given to patients and more than 730,000 people vaccinated. More than three million doses of antiviral drugs remain unused. The overall cost is estimated at 55 million, including hospital response, the cost of the extra drugs and setting up a helpline.

Ms Sturgeon maintains that the outbreak was not over-hyped and that it was right to prepare for the worst. However, much will have been learnt through this exercise in handling viral outbreaks of this sort. A threat to public health had to be quickly addressed. But we are now in an era of budget constraints when care has to be taken to ensure that money is most effectively spent and the experience of last year drawn on to help construct more accurate measures of public risk and drug requirements.