Tuesday 18 December 2018

Unexpected strain of flu - not covered by vaccine - threatens further chaos in hospitals

  • Health professionals not prepared for B strain of flu
  • Influenza B Yamagata strain is now accounting for 60pc-70pc of the cases of confirmed flu
  • Vaccine which provides more protection to patients from this flu, has not been purchased by the HSE
  • Hundreds of patients left on trolleys in emergency departments around the country
Ireland is in the throes of flu season
Ireland is in the throes of flu season

Eilish O'Regan Health Correspondent

A strain of flu which is not covered by the only seasonal vaccine available free to at-risk patients is spreading and threatening to heap more misery on the country's emergency departments.

Although 'Aussie flu' AH3N2 continues to be a major risk, it has been overtaken by a separate B strain of the virus, which thousands of people who got the vaccine are not adequately protected against.

The emergence of this strain was not foreseen by public health officials here.

The unexpected Influenza B Yamagata strain is now accounting for 60pc-70pc of the cases of confirmed flu, the Irish Independent has learned.

A second expensive vaccine, which provides more protection to patients from this flu, has not been purchased by the HSE.

The HSE said yesterday it had confined its stocks of vaccine this winter to the trivalent flu jab.

This was the vaccine recommended by the Department of Health and the National Immunisation Advisory Committee.

It bought over one million supplies of the standard flu vaccine which the World Health Organisation (WHO) forecast would include protection against the main strains circulating this winter.

The hope is that this standard vaccine may still provide some limited coverage against the B Yamagata strain but it is unclear how much.

The B strain is not seen as severe as Aussie flu and is more likely to affect younger age groups who have not been previously exposed to the virus.

The latest outbreak came as patients endured more gruelling delays in A&Es across the country.

On Tuesday, the INMO said that 575 patients were on trolleys in hospitals nationwide.

The national figures compare to last week’s record high of 656 but the failure to make a major dent in the queues comes despite the triggering of a series of measures including the opening of beds and transfer of patients to private facilities.

Earlier this morning, the HSE's TrolleyGar system recorded 441 patients on trolleys in hospitals - including eight children.

The Mater is the worst affected hospital in the country today with 32 patients on trolleys. Letterkenny University Hospital has 31 people waiting for a bed.

Consultant in Emergency Medicine at Tallaght Hospital, and Clinical Senior Lecturer at Trinity College Dr Jim Gray has said he can't understand why people are not protesting on the street in relation to the trolley crisis.

Dr Gray told RTÉ's Sean O'Rourke that with the number of patients on trolleys (15), there was one 84 year old woman waiting 22 hours '"languishing on a trolley, waiting on a bed". Another three of the patients were waiting more than 24 hours. 

"We're tolerating this," he said, describing the situation as "institutional abuse".

"I can't understand why people are not out on the streets in their droves protesting over this scandal that has been allowed continue," he said.

It is expected that some 3,000 patients on waiting lists will have their planned surgery put on hold or cancelled this month to free up beds.

Dr John Duddy, a trainee neurosurgeon at Cork University Hospital, said all planned non-emergency operations had been parked for the last two weeks.

It meant that patients who could have been waiting a year with a spinal condition have had to stay in the queue.

Doctors have warned that some seriously ill patients have also had their surgery put back and some are ending up in A&E because of the symptoms of their condition.

Health Minister Simon Harris, who said he attended a meeting of the Emergency Department Taskforce, said: "It is important to note that Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation figures today are 101 lower than the first working day last week and 122 lower than the highest figure recorded last week."

He said: "The measures agreed at today's meeting include an increase in the number of senior clinical decision-makers on hand in hospitals in the evenings and at weekends.

"They also include enhanced access to diagnostics, increased access to transitional care beds, the opening of additional beds in a number of hospitals including St James's, the Mater and Beaumont, and the utilisation of beds in private hospitals."

He added: "I also asked the taskforce to a carry out a piece of work to examine how we can better support our elderly during the winter months, including residents in nursing homes and those living in the community.

"We must now focus on making sure we have plans in place to fix the situation in our emergency departments and break the cycle of overcrowding in the health service." He will bring the report of the bed capacity review, recommending another 2,000 to 2,500 beds over the next decade, to Cabinet.

Irish Independent

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