DOCTORS warned last night that Britain was facing a major health alert as 11 people in the region were confirmed critically ill with swine flu.

Medical experts are concerned because the return of swine flu has coincided with a drop in the number of people taking free vaccinations – down by 15 per cent in October.

About a million people in the North-East are entitled to the vaccination, which protects against swine flu.

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Although last year’s swine flu pandemic is officially over, H1N1 is still circulating in the population, along with other flu viruses.

Some of the victims fighting for their lives in the North- East have existing medical conditions and could have avoided the virus if they had been vaccinated.

Last night, North-East health officials said it was vital that all at-risk patients received the vaccine as soon as possible.

So far, 14 of the 17 UK deaths this flu season have involved swine flu. All were under 65 and six were under 18.

Last year’s pandemic claimed seven lives in the North-East.

Some experts have called for the reintroduction of swine flu critical care planning groups, set up at the height of the pandemic last year, to deal with the latest crisis.

Dr George Rae, chairman of the British Medical Association (BMA) in the North-East, said: “It is looking as if it could be worse than last year.

It is happening again and things could start to get out of hand.”

He said the flu jab was “one hundred per cent safe” and urged people in the at-risk groups to contact their GPs.

The BMA said it was deeply concerned that a major flu crisis is brewing.

Dr Lawrence Buckman, chairman of the BMA’s GPs Committee, has written to the Government urging it to step up the public awareness campaign for seasonal flu immunisation.

Two of the 11 critically ill North-East patients are being kept alive by an advanced artificial lung machine known as ECMO (Extra Corporeal Membrane Oxygenation).

Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital’s ECMO unit, which is one of a handful in the country, is normally used to treat children with lung failure.

But because of the increased numbers of seriously ill flu patients the Newcastle Hospitals Trust has adapted the paediatric unit so it can treat adults.

ECMO treatment involves the artificial oxygenation of the blood for an average of 17 days to allow the patient’s lungs to recover from the illness.

A spokesman for the trust said they were treating two adult flu patients on the unit.

Earlier this week, Dr Richard Firmin, director of the UK’s main ECMO centre, in Leicester, said they were very busy, busier than last year with 15 ECMO beds open across the UK, compared with 12 at the peak of last year’s pandemic.

Health Protection Agency figures show that so far this season, 17 patients have needed ECMO treatment. All of them were adults under 65 and four were pregnant women.

Dr Tricia Cresswell, deputy medical director at NHS North-East, said: “We’re very concerned about the number of people being admitted to hospital with serious complications from flu, who are critically ill.

“Reassuringly, levels of flu in the general community remain quite low and most people recover well. However, for those with chronic health problems and for pregnant women, there is a risk of more serious illness.

“We’re urging all those at risk – especially pregnant women and young people with long-term health conditions – to get vaccinated against flu as a matter of urgency – please don’t be complacent.”

People who qualify for the free NHS seasonal flu vaccine include all frontline health and social care workers, pregnant women not previously protected from swine flu, everyone aged 65 or over and anyone who has a serious chronic illness or condition.