Pandemic could overwhelm critical care beds in England, especially children's units

July 24, 2009

Experts in intensive care and anaesthesia have predicted that the current swine flu pandemic could overwhelm critical care beds and ventilators in England, with hospitals on the South East Coast, and in the South West, East of England and East Midlands, being worst hit.

The research, fast-tracked for online publication by Anaesthesia, suggests that demand for critical care beds could outstrip supply by up to 130 per cent, with up to 20 per cent excess demand for ventilators in some regions.

"Any predictions need to be based on the most accurate information available at the time and we recognise that we are in the early stages of the pandemic" says Dr Ari Ercole, a member of the research group led by Professor David Menon from the University of Cambridge.

"However, based on figures provided by the ten regional health authorities and using the FLUSURGE model developed by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA, we can see that hospitals would face massive excess demand even if the pandemic lasted an optimistic twelve weeks.

"Paediatric intensive care facilities for children under 15 would be quickly exhausted, as they make up 10 per cent of current provision but could face 30 per cent of the demand for pandemic related beds.

"Early experience of the present strain suggests that the attack rate is particularly high in the young and that this virus may severely compromise the immune systems of people who contract it."

The research group, which also involved Dr Bruce Taylor from the Intensive Care Society and Dr Andrew Rhodes from St George's Hospital, London, has calculated that there is an average of 4.5 critical care beds for each of the 100,000 people living in England. These vary from 3.0 on the South East Coast to 7.5 in London.

Based on nearly 62,000 people being affected by swine flu at any one time, they predict that: Latest official figures show there are 2,030 level three critical care adult beds in England and 265 paediatric intensive care beds, together with 1,607 adult and 43 paediatric high dependency beds that could potentially be used to ventilate people. The authors have assumed that the number of ventilators available equals the number of critical care beds.

"One of the main problems is that these beds already run at high occupancy rates and even delaying elective surgery to create additional ventilated beds would not meet demand" explains Dr Ercole.

Dr Jonathan Handy, a consultant intensivist and anaesthetist from the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, London, says that the results of the study are alarming. "The best case estimates predict that capacity could be significantly increased from baseline, while the worst case could exceed current capacity by an order of magnitude" he says in an accompanying editorial.

"All acute trusts should have already developed local flu plans to include a 100% increase in critical care capacity. However, some may be more comprehensive (and optimistic) than others."

He adds that the predicted demand levels suggest that immediate action is needed to ensure that practical measures are in place, from stockpiling supplies to looking at how medical students could play an active role in patient care.

Dr Handy argues that if the worst-case scenario fails to emerge the work carried out to expand critical care capacity will never be wasted, in a world where terrorism and environmental and man-made disasters are omnipresent.

"One thing that can be certain, however, is the emergency planning mantra" he says. "To fail to plan is to plan to fail."
Note to editors

Modelling the impact of an influenza A/H1N1 pandemic on critical care demand from early pathogenicity data: the case for sentinel reporting. Ercole A, Taylor B L, Rhodes A and Menon D K. Anaesthesia. Published online early ahead of print. July 2009.

Critical care bed capacity during the flu pandemic: implications for anaesthetic and critical care departments. Handy J M. Anaesthesia. Published online early ahead of print. July 2009.

Anaesthesia is the official journal of the Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland and is international in scope and comprehensive in coverage. It publishes original, peer-reviewed articles on all aspects of general and regional anaesthesia, intensive care and pain therapy, including research on equipment.

Wiley-Blackwell is the international scientific, technical, medical and scholarly publishing business of John Wiley & Sons, with strengths in every major academic and professional field and partnerships with many of the world's leading societies. Wiley-Blackwell publishes over 1,400 peer-reviewed journals as well as 1,500+ new books annually in print and online, as well as databases, major reference works and laboratory protocols. For more information, please visit or


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