Community pharmacies have been given the go ahead to start supplying antiviral medicines due to an increase in influenza cases in the community - the earliest time that such an alert has been issued in the last decade.
The alert, issued by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) this week (3 December), said that 'pharmacists may now supply antiviral medicines for the prophylaxis and treatment of influenza at NHS expense'.
It added that 'surveillance data indicates an increase in influenza cases in the community'.
In previous years, this notice has been issued in later December or early January and this is the earliest since the swine flu outbreak in 2009/10, showing that flu season has come earlier than normal.
It comes as the latest Public Health England (PHE) weekly flu statistics reported 190 new acute respiratory outbreaks within a week, 68 more than in the previous week.
The MHRA said 'antiviral medicines may be prescribed for patients in clinical at-risk groups as well as any who are at risk of severe illness and/or complications from influenza if not treated'.
Must be issued 'promptly'
Pharmacists must ensure antiviral medicines (AVs) are 'issued to patients promptly' for maximum effectiveness, the MHRA said.
The alert said: 'They are most effective if taken within 48 hours of onset of symptoms. It is important that pharmacists ensure AVs are issued to patients promptly, to avoid treatment delay.'
Pharmacists should 'consider how best they can assist patients to gain timely access to AVs' if they are unable to fulfill the whole prescription, including arranging for patients to collect stock from other local pharmacies or for the stock to be transferred if available, it added.
The alert reiterated that 'all frontline healthcare workers' should be vaccinated annually against flu, following English chief pharmaceutical officer Keith Ridge's call for pharmacy teams to get the flu jab 'as soon as possible'.
Last month, NHS England confirmed that community pharmacies and GP practices will no longer be barred from sharing flu vaccination stock without a wholesaler licence.