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University experts develop early warning system for pandemic flu

A new computerised information system that will be able to provide daily figures on the number of people going to their GP suffering from a flu-like illness has been developed by researchers from The University of Nottingham in partnership with public health experts.

The system has been developed by researchers from the University's Division of Primary Care in collaboration with Health Protection Agency surveillance experts, GPs and EMIS, the computer system used in 60 per cent of general practices in the UK.

Delegates attending the final day of the Health Protection Agency's annual conference will hear that QFLU is among developments the agency has made in improving the UK's preparedness for a future flu pandemic.

Information from the system, including the number of patients suffering from respiratory infections such as pneumonia and the number of people given antivirals, will be crucial in identifying areas of the country which may be seeing a high number of pandemic flu outbreaks and where the NHS may need to concentrate its efforts. In addition, it will be an 'early warning' system — identifying areas which start to see outbreaks in the early phases of the pandemic and will help health officials monitor its spread and inform vaccine distribution and wider health policy decisions.

University of Nottingham Professor Julia Hippisley-Cox, co-founder of QFLU, said: “Pandemic flu is not an easy thing to prepare for. We are very grateful to the GPs who have signed up to provide this vital data, and we would invite others to join them.

“The information will help individual practices and Primary Care Trusts to plan resources for their patients, as well as helping the Government to plan on a national scale.”

The QFLU is the largest surveillance scheme of its kind in Europe. Its network incorporates nearly 3,000 GP practices across the UK covering more than 17 million people and the practices contribute daily aggregated data on clinical diagnoses and prescribing to a centralised database throughout the year.

Dr David Stables, co-founder of QFLU and Clinical Director of EMIS, said: “The QFLU project confirms that information collected by busy GPs during a normal working day is of huge value to the healthcare of the nation. The information has been submitted by thousands of doctors acting entirely altruistically. EMIS is delighted to be able to help with this, and we look forward to enabling other projects commissioned by the HPA that meet real national health needs.”

Dr Gillian Smith, who led on the project for the Health Protection Agency, said: “Our current system reports data on a weekly basis which would be too late in the event of a pandemic flu. QFLU has been developed to be quick, efficient and easy to use by those who will be at the frontline.

“The system proved itself as a valuable resource last year following the Buncefield Fuel Depot fire. As there were questions as to whether there was a threat to the health of those living nearby we monitored if there were any increases in respiratory illness, such as coughs or chest infections, in people living near the fire. After analysing the data we were able to conclude that there wasn't an increase in respiratory illnesses caused by the incident.”

Emma Thorne | alfa
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