PATIENTS with swine flu are fighting for their lives in East Lancashire's hospitals.

Nine people are in critical care beds across Lancashire and Cumbria, according to the health authority NHS North West.

And while East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust said it could not confirm the exact number of patients it is treating for confidentiality reasons, it is understood there are 'a handful of cases' in Royal Blackburn Hospital and Burnley General Hospital.

As yet there have been no confirmed deaths in East Lancashire.

However, eight people are thought to have died from swine flu in the North West, with deaths reported in Liverpool, Manchester, Bolton, Oldham, Rochdale and Bury.

The Health Protection Agency said 14 people had died with swine flu and another three from flu type B within the last six weeks nationally.

All were aged under 65, with six aged under 18, and the majority had underlying health problems.

Last year, a total of 44 people from the north west died after contracting swine flu.

Flu infections normally peak during January and February, but they are already rising rapidly across East Lancashire, and the majority of cases have been linked to the H1N1 swine flu virus.

NHS Blackburn with Darwen Care Trust Plus saw an increase from 17 GP-observed cases of flu in the week ending December 5 to 27 cases in the week ending December 12.

Meanwhile, NHS East Lancashire saw a rise over the same period from less than five observed cases to 39.

Despite this trend, fewer patients than last year in at-risk groups have come forward for the seasonal flu jab.

Two-thirds of the over-65s, but only 40 per cent of under-65s in at-risk groups, have had the flu shot, which this year contains vaccines against swine flu, flu B and a virus known as H3N2.

At-risk groups include pregnant women, everyone over the age of 65, people with long-term respiratory disease, heart disease, chronic kidney or liver disease, those with diabetes and those with a weakened immune system due to disease such as HIV/Aids or treatment.

Dr Sohail Bhatti, interim director of public health for NHS East Lancashire, urged people to visit their GP surgery as soon as possible.

He said: “I would encourage everyone ‘at risk’ to have their flu jab.

"Protection far outweighs any perceived risks.”