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The 5 questions everyone's asking over deaths tragedy

THE deaths of six elderly people in care were today being blamed on a killer strain of flu. It's a nightmare scenario for anyone whose loved ones are in nursing homes.

Our sympathies will go out to those who have died, but questions will be asked about how such a large outbreak happened in one place and whether adequate precautions were taken.

A report of so many deaths taking place from presumably the same illness in a nursing home within such a short timeframe appears to be unprecedented in recent times.

At present, the concerns of families of residents in the Donegal home are compounded by the fact that we do not yet know the exact nature of the bug.

What we do know is that, according to a recent HSE report, flu can be a significant cause of death and hospitalisation, especially among the elderly and frail in residential care.

The report says during outbreaks of flu in nursing homes, illness rates can be as high as 40pc, however the scale of the outbreak in this particular home appears to be higher.

Whether it is flu or another bug causing the outbreak, infections of this nature tend to spread rapidly in a nursing home environment, given the fact that the residents are older, some may have chronic medical conditions, they are living in close proximity and have communal living arrangements.

However, even taking these factors into account, the extent of the outbreak must set alarm bells ringing.

The nursing home in question has had positive reports from the health safety watchdog, HIQA. Immunisation guidelines state that nursing home residents and those in other long-stay facilities should get the flu vaccine each year. Residents in the Donegal nursing home therefore, if it was adhering to guidelines, would presunably have had their flu jab some months ago.

Because the nature of the infection is unknown it is simply too early to say if the current flu vaccine should -- or could -- have worked against it.

Niall Hunter is Editor of irishhealth.com