SWINE FLU: WHO CAN MOTHERS BELIEVE? Farce as Health Experts Issue Conflicting Advice to Pregnant Women and Parents; GPs' Anger over 'Scaremongering'

Article excerpt

Byline: David Derbyshire

PARENTS were left in confusion last night over the dangers of swine flu for pregnant women and young children.

As the Home Secretary said that the outbreak posed a bigger threat than terrorism, health experts issued conflicting advice.

The National Childbirth Trust, the UK's biggest parenting charity, warned that the risks of the pandemic were so great that women should delay having babies. But ministers and GPs disagreed and accused the charity of scaremongering.

Then - to add to the confusion - the Royal College of Midwives said all expectant mothers should 'avoid crowded places and unnecessary travel'.

Again, the Department of Health disagreed, saying only the 'particularly concerned' should consider the advice.

Concerns over the impact of swine flu on pregnant women were heightened after a mother with the virus died shortly after giving birth. Ruptara Miah, 39, died at Whipp's Cross Hospital, London, bringing the official death toll to 29.

A six-month-old child was also among the latest casualties as swine flu reached near-epidemic level in parts of the country.

According to the latest official figures, there were between 30,000 and 85,000 new cases of swine flu last week in the UK.

Most cases have been mild, with some suffering nothing more than a bad cold and slight temperature. However, children. under 15, babies and pregnant women are most at risk.

Yesterday the NCT - a charity which promotes natural childbirth and breastfeeding - provoked anger when it suggested women delay having babies to reduce their risk.

On its website it stated: 'The Department of Health advises that it may be sensible for those trying for children. to consider delaying conception whilst the pandemic is going one.

'This may reduce the risk of your catching flu and may reduce its severity because pregnancy affects your immune system.' Belinda Phipps, chief executive of NCT, later insisted women needed information to make an informed decision.

'If you are pregnant, you are slightly more susceptible to all infections. One of them is swine flu,' she told BBC News. 'It is important that pregnant women know that - and particularly other members of the population know that - so that they behave responsibly and if they are sick they don't go and put themselves close to a pregnant woman.' But Professor Steve Field, chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, accused the charity of scaremongering.

'Although technically correct, its advice is a completely disproportionate reaction,' he said.

'I don't believe it's appropriate to give out this sort of message, because it adds to the sense of hysteria and panic that seems to be engulfing the nation.' And Home Secretary Alan Johnson - who was Health Secretary during the early stages of the swine flu outbreak - said the advice was 'an over-reaction'.

Most parents would follow 'common sense' precautions, he said.

In a separate development, the Royal College of Midwives told pregnant women to avoid crowded trains.

Its latest guidelines, issued yesterday, state: 'Tissues should be used to cover the mouth and nose when sneezing and coughing, and used tissues should be disposed of promptly. Pregnant women are advised to avoid crowded places when possible.'. Again, the Department of Health tried to play down the guidance. In a document posted on its website aimed at parents and pregnant mothers, it said that only 'particularly concerned' women should avoid crowd and unnecessary travel.

It was more important to follow good hygiene by washing hands and sneezing into disposable tissues.

As attention focused on the risk to pregnant mothers, the Government was under pressure to reveal whether they would be vaccinated.

Ministers must decide in the coming weeks whether to give pregnant women the swine flu vaccine. …