People travelling to Ireland are urged to be aware of a nasty swine ‘flu outbreak which has contributed to hundreds of patients on trolleys waiting for hospital beds.
The country’s health officials have urged people in “at-risk” health groups to get the flu vaccine following reports of as many as four deaths this season.
Vulnerable groups include pregnant people, those aged 65 and over and people with chronic illnesses.
Those working in healthcare and nursing have also been urged to get vaccinated.
Flu levels are expected to increase over the coming weeks as it begins to circulate around the country.
By the end of February last year, almost 2,900 people were hospitalised with ‘flu.
Ireland’s Health Service Executive (HSE) says the ‘flu vaccine it is using is a good match to combat the strains circulating at the moment.
“Flu is now beginning to circulate, and as schools reopen and people return to work we are likely to see increased levels,” said the HSE’s head of health protection, Dr Kevin Kelleher.
The predominant strain currently circulating is H1N1 and ot is having a greater effect on younger age groups than other strains did in years past.
Some people in their 20s and 40s have been admitted to intensive care with severe symptoms.
Between two and four people have already died from the H1N1 strain this season, said Dr Kelleher.
The ‘flu arrived in Ireland later than usual this year, taking some seasonal strain off the country’s health system over Christmas but matters are likely to get worse in the coming weeks as schools and workplaces return to normal.
“If you see signs, don’t go out, stay home, don’t transmit the virus,” Dr Kelleher told RTÉ radio.
The vast majority of people affected can stay home in bed and self-medicate with analgesics and fluids, he said.
“If they really are ill they will arrange to go to hospital in a way that will not affect others.”
Healthcare workers hope to avoid a repeat of last year’s ‘flu which The Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) – the HSE’s specialist agency for the surveillance of communicable diseases – said remained at “sustained high levels” for seven successive weeks toward the end of February.
It said ‘flu was still ‘widespread’ when levels would normally be expected to drop with the highest reported levels since surveillance began in 2000.
The GP influenza-like illness consultation rate increased slightly to 65.1 per 100,000 of the population during week seven.
By that time, just over 100 flu-related deaths had been recorded.
Last October, the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland said the ‘flu vaccine should be made mandatory for doctors, nurses and care staff in high-risk parts of hospitals such as intensive care, cancer wards and emergency departments.
Dr Kelleher warned that the disease rate is beginning to rise and will likely to signify the commencement of a so-called “flu season” soon.
“I can see in the data I have available that it is beginning to rise, that it almost certainly will go above a threshold that we have got that says it is ‘flu season,” he told the Irish Independent.
“The number we use is 17 to indicate that threshold and we are at 11 now.
“The flu seasons last anywhere from 12 weeks up to 18 weeks. Last year it was 17 weeks, which was really very long.”
Meanwhile, the number of patients who require admission to a hospital bed waiting on trolleys in emergency departments or on wards rose to 541 by Monday of this week, said the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO).
There were 392 patients in need of admission waiting in emergency departments in hospital across the country on Monday, according to INMO, and 149 waiting for a bed in a ward.
It said University Hospital Limerick was the worst hit, with 32 patients on trolleys in the emergency department and 12 patients on wards.
In Letterkenny University Hospital, there were 36 patients on trolleys in the emergency department, while in Cork University Hospital there were also 36 patients awaiting admission to a bed at Cork University Hospital.
At Temple Street University Hospital there were eight children on trolleys in the emergency department.