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Harney on holidays as swine flu patients fight for life

TWO pregnant women and three children were amongst 33 swine flu patients battling for their lives today.

The number of cases of the deadly illness has doubled in the last week, with 114 hospitalised since October.

But Health Minister Mary Harney was still on holidays -- thought to be in sun drenched South Africa -- as the crisis grew.

She will not return before the weekend her advisor said, but would not reveal where she was.

One Dublin mum had to rush her 18-month-old son to Crumlin Hospital when he suddenly developed serious swine flu symptoms.

The tot went into a convulsion, began vomiting, had a high temperature and was unresponsive.

The frightened mother immediately phoned out-of-hours doctor service D Doc where she was advised that her son was likely to be suffering from swine flu.

The boy was rushed to Our Lady's Hospital Crumlin where a blood test confirmed he had the deadly illness.

The baby is said to be recovering well and is currently on Tamiflu medication.

Hospital services are buckling under the strain of swine flu cases as the numbers presenting with the symptoms have soared by 200pc within the week.

The State's chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, warned that the cases could increase even further within the coming month as children return to school.

However, he said that there had been no confirmed deaths from flu here to date this season.

A Government spokesman told the Herald today that he did not know where Health Minister Mary Harney was but added that she "has been in contact by modern communications".


However, the Minister has been slammed by Opposition parties.

Labour's Health spokeswoman Jan O'Sullivan argued: "I don't have a problem with her taking a break over Christmas but everybody should have been back at work by January 4. I believe she should come back."

It is widely anticipated that Ms Harney will not stand in the upcoming election but Ms O'Sullivan told the Herald that is not good enough for sick patients.

"I don't think the issue is whether she will run again or not. The issue is that she is Minister for Health.

"If she doesn't want to be Minister for Health any more or has lost interest then she should step aside and let someone else in," she said.

Liam Doran of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation said that the only short-term solution to the A&E crisis, worsened now by the virus, would be to open some of the 1,600 closed beds in acute hospital.

However, the HSE cannot do that without direction from Minister Harney or another high-level member of Government.

"We can throw all we want at the HSE but it's having to deal with what it's told to do. Minister Harney's policy on A&E has completely failed," he said.

The latest figures from the national Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) show rates of flu-like illness increased to 120.6 per 100,000 of the population in last week.

That's compared to just 59.5 per 100,000 the previous week.

Unlike last year when children under five years were the worst affected, the highest number of cases currently has been seen in the 15-64 age group.

While it is still far off the swine flu high of 200 per 100,000 last year, Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan warned that last winter's peak could yet be surpassed.

Dr Darina O'Flanagan from the HPSC said that the numbers requiring critical care treatment is on the rise.


"We have already had 33 people admitted to intensive care," she said this morning.

"For the vast majority of people it's fine but for a small proportion of people they do get the serious end of the spectrum -- a respiratory distress syndrome."

But she urged pregnant women to get the vaccine. "Even if you are close to delivery, it will help protect your baby in the first few weeks," she said.

"The vaccine does contain mercury and we can understand concerns, but it is in a form that doesn't cause any problems."

In advance of students returning to school, the Department of Education is to reissue last year's advice and guidelines on how to reduce the risk of swine flu.


Some patients with swine flu are being prescribed Tamiflu in boxes which suggest the antiviral is out of date, although the HSE has said that the European Medicines Agency had extended the shelf life of these batches of the medicine by two years.

Those who obtained the H1N1 pandemic vaccine last year as well as those who contracted swine flu last year still have immunity.

However, the HSE said that there was "no clear scientific answer" as to how long immunity from last year's vaccine lasted but it's likely there will be some immunity still available".