THE deadly swine flu virus has swept through Hampshire leaving six people starting the new year in intensive care.

Four of those struck down by the potentially fatal H1N1 bug are adults who are “critical but stable” and two are children who are in a “serious” condition.

All six are being treated at Southampton General Hospital, with the youngsters on the paediatric intensive care unit. There are two further suspected cases of adults having the illness.

Staff at the hospital are battling against an “unprecedented” number of flu cases, with more than 50 per cent of patients being admitted through the emergency unit suffering from flu-like symptoms.

The soaring numbers have put a major strain on resources as staff at Southampton University Hospitals NHS Trust (SUHT) contend with 100 more patients than expected for this time of year.

More than ten per cent of patients are being referred for respiratory examination every day and up to 80 per cent have influenza, mainly the swine flu strain.

The total number of patients in England on intensive care with confirmed or suspected flu has risen to 738, including 42 youngsters under five.

However, the Royal Hampshire County Hospital in Winchester has seen fewer flu cases than last year, with just 15 patients suffering from serious symptoms being admitted in the last two weeks.

Hospital bosses in Southampton are urging members of the public to help play their part in beating the bugs and stay away from hospital unless absolutely necessary, taking advantage of the flu jab if eligible.

Dr Ben Marshal, a respiratory specialist and flu expert, said: “We are seeing a week-on-week increase in patients being admitted with influenza-like illnesses in Southampton and currently have more than 30 adults alone now in hospital receiving treatment – that is unprecedented at this time.

“There is currently lots of seasonal flu around in the community, but what is concerning is that we are taking in many patients under 65 with the H1N1 strain who are also contracting pneumonia, creating further complications.

“While we did expect an increase in flu-related hospital admissions this year, the numbers have been far higher and there is no sign of that letting up anytime soon.”

Dr Marshall said many people will be able to self-treat at home and advised people, particularly those in at-risk groups such as the elderly or those with chronic illness, as well as pregnant women, to contact their GP and get vaccinated.

Sickness and diarrhoea are also continuing to cause an added strain to services, with three wards at Southampton General Hospital remaining temporarily closed to new admissions.