Search for hundreds on flu plane

HEALTH officials are hunting for hundreds of airline passengers who may have become infected with swine flu from a Scot returning home from a trip to America.

The man was last night revealed to be Scotland's latest "probable" case of H1N1 after falling ill with flu following a trip to Texas, one of the areas affected by swine flu.

The latest development was announced last night by Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon as the tally of confirmed cases in the UK rose to 15, including three in Scotland.

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New cases confirmed yesterday include an adult and a child from different parts of England, both associated with travel to Mexico. The child is understood to be a six-year-old girl from Oxfordshire. Another new case was the husband of a woman who was already confirmed as having the virus.

A total of 631 cases, 19 of which are Scots, are under investigation in the UK.

Officials in Mexico have downscaled the death toll from H1N1 from 176 cases to 101, suggesting the virus is not as deadly as it was first feared.

But although there are some promising signs that the outbreak of swine flu may be stabilising in some areas, the world remains on the brink of a pandemic that could infect many millions and kill hundreds of thousands.

UK public health agencies are trying to contact members of the public who shared flights with a Scot who they believe is likely to have H1N1.

The man, who is from Ayrshire and Arran but has not been named, flew to Glasgow from a trip to Texas last week, where a 23-month-old child died of swine flu.

The unnamed man flew into Birmingham from Texas on April 27. He then flew from Birmingham to Glasgow International on April 30. By the time he arrived in Scotland he was displaying swine flu symptoms and health officials believe he could have passed on the virus to other passengers.

Last night Sturgeon said: "We are tracing this person's contacts on the flight to Scotland and that process is under way. All appropriate efforts will be made to approach all the people on the flight and we will identify any close contacts that the individual had. The risk to health in Scotland remains low and we are working hard to contain the spread."

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The man has tested positive for influenza A, which means he needs further tests to establish whether he has swine flu.

Mary Scanlon, Scottish Conservative health spokeswoman, said: "We can't be surprised that there are more cases. The main thing is to detect everyone else that was on that plane.

"The Scottish Government has to instil confidence that they will do everything in their power to detect, trace and pursue everyone that is a potential contact of this person."

Worldwide there are now 660 confirmed cases in 17 countries.

Yesterday Scotland's Chief Medical Officer Dr Harry Burns said the emerging picture suggested the nature of the illness might be no more serious than ordinary winter flu. But he warned: "We have to prepare for the worst." The 1957 pandemic had just a 0.1% death rate but because it infected 30% to 70% of the population worldwide, it killed two million people. Seasonal flu infects up to 6% of the population in an average year.

Sturgeon said the fact that the number of cases had not risen greatly meant she was "quite optimistic" about the virus. However, she warned that, even at best, all health officials could do was keep the number of cases as low as possible until a vaccine was found.

She added: "We have not beaten swine flu in Scotland but so far managed to contain the virus.

"The best-case scenario is that we buy enough time to get a vaccine in place so that when we do see greater spread of this we have the tools to cope with it."

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But Scotland on Sunday can reveal that delays in introducing a national flu helpline could hamper the battle against the virus. The helpline, which is designed to handle calls from thousands of members of the public, will not be operational until the autumn, four months behind schedule. There are fears the delay could hold up getting antivirals to patients.

A Government leaflet being distributed to homes across the country this week will advise everyone to set up a network of "flu friends" – relatives, friends and neighbours who can help during an illness to collect food and medicines. It also warns anyone who thinks they might have swine flu to stay at home and phone NHS24 but not to go into a GP surgery to avoid passing the virus on.

The first person to contract swine flu in England without visiting Mexico was recovering at home yesterday.

Barry Greatorex, 43, from Chipping Sodbury in south Gloucestershire, believes he caught the virus from a colleague after only a brief meeting.

Experts warned that the virus should not be downplayed.

Dr Alan McNally, senior lecturer and influenza diagnostics researcher at Nottingham Trent University, said it was a relief the strain was not the "worst-case scenario" H5N1 variety, which could have resulted in a 50% mortality rate.

But he said the pandemic would still mean a higher number of flu cases.

"It's still a nasty, nasty influenza but it's not the worst-case scenario. It's crucial we don't go down the route of becoming blas – it's still a major influenza episode."

Another Scottish couple, Robert and Elaine Watson from Haddington, East Lothian, were yesterday quarantined at their home after reporting flu-like symptoms following a holiday in Mexico.

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Tests are being carried out to establish whether they have H1N1.

Private clinics cashing in on antivirals

PRIVATE clinics in Scotland have been accused of cashing in on the swine flu pandemic by charging patients almost 140 for antiviral drugs to stockpile at home.

Scotland on Sunday has uncovered evidence of private GPs in Edinburgh and Glasgow "profiteering" from the swine flu outbreak by offering Tamiflu for sale at up to seven times the charge to the NHS.

The drug is free of charge to anyone suspected of being at risk of the swine flu virus. Last night the private doctors were accused of "capitalising" on patients' fears.

One clinic, GP Matters in Glasgow, is charging 138 for a five-day course of tablets, which normally costs the NHS around 20, and are being given out free to patients who may be at risk of swine flu. Another, Medicalternative in Edinburgh, is selling Tamiflu for 70, including the cost of a consultation, for patients to "keep in their medicine cabinet just in case".

The NHS has enough stockpiles of Tamiflu to treat half the population of Scotland and a distribution network is being set up to enable patients to receive it quickly in the case of a pandemic.

Yesterday Dr Lyndsey Myskow, of Medicalternative, said 20 patients had already bought Tamiflu in the past week. She added: "There has certainly been a lot of interest in it. It has been difficult to get supplies because the NHS is stockpiling Tamiflu, but we had some supplies previous to swine flu starting up. It is useful as a preventative so you can take it if you have been exposed to an infected individual.

"Supplies are dwindling fast and we don't have very many courses left. A number of our patients have been asking for supplies to keep in their medicine cabinet just in case.

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"There's no doubt that the NHS is going to be providing adequate supplies. But there may be people who, for particular health reasons, want it, and it's a shame they have to buy it."

GP Matters is advertising "Tamiflu available" on the homepage of its website, at a fee of 138 for a course of tablets. Staff at GP Matters could not be contacted yesterday.

Margaret Watt, chairwoman of the Scotland Patients' Association, said it was "obscene" for clinics to sell Tamiflu under the current circumstances.

She added: "This is capitalising on the situation, where a lot of people are frightened, and it should be stopped."

Labour's health spokesman Dr Richard Simpson, said: "This is profiteering. At this stage it is not even certain if we are going to have a pandemic. But if people are foolish enough to want to waste their money when we have enough Tamiflu for 50% of the population it's up to them."

Kate Foster