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PHA reassures the public after two deaths in people with no underlying health problems

2011-01-13

The Public Health Agency (PHA), Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) hosted a briefing today to outline the current position in respect of flu and seasonal winter pressures.

Today the PHA published the flu bulletin and confirmed that between 1–7 January 2011, there were 204 new laboratory confirmed cases of swine flu in Northern Ireland compared to 200 in the last week of December 2010. The figures show that although flu is continuing to circulate in the community, the rate of increase in new confirmed cases is slowing.

As of Wednesday 12 January 2011, 17 people have died from H1N1 flu during the current flu season. Of these, 14 had underlying medical conditions that predispose them to develop a complication of influenza, 2 did not, and 1 is still to be confirmed. The 2 people who had no underlying health conditions were both adults. This year there have been no deaths of pregnant women and as previously reported 1 in a child.

Dr Carolyn Harper, Director of Public Health for Northern Ireland, said:

“In the UK last year, around 23% of people, who died from swine flu, had no underlying conditions. The current figure here is now 13%. Our numbers are small and should not be over interpreted, but advice we have is that the current pattern of swine flu here is not different to that in other parts of the UK.”

People should also be reassured by the fact that the World Health Organisation has said that there is no evidence that the swine flu virus is changing. Unfortunately these deaths are a reminder of the fact that for a small number of people, and still particularly those with underlying medical conditions, swine flu can be a very serious illness. Other people are also affected but their risk is much lower.”

Vaccination still remains the most effective way to protect those who are most at risk from flu and its complications. Dr Harper continued; “While many people in the ‘at risk’ groups who have been offered vaccine have taken up that offer, some have not. It is not too late to get protected and you should see your GP about being immunised as soon as possible.”

At today’s briefing, Mr John Compton, Chief Executive, Health and Social Care Board, outlined the position with regards to the impact of flu and seasonal winter pressures on health and social care services.

Mr Compton, said: “The service continues to be busy with flu and seasonal winter pressures continuing to pose a challenge, however these pressures are being effectively managed across Northern Ireland and normal escalation arrangements are in place to cope with any expected demands at this time.”

He continued: “The position, as of Wednesday, 12 January 2011, is that 30 out of 83 adult critical care patients and 4 out of 8 paediatric critical care patients are being treated for flu.

Of all patients being treated in hospital in Northern Ireland today, approximately 3 per cent have been confirmed with swine flu or are suspected as having it. This is not unusual at this time of year when flu is most prevalent.”

At this time of year, the service would normally undertake around 1,100 planned inpatient procedures in a week. As a result of the measures agreed between the Board and Trusts last week to expand critical care capacity, it has been necessary to defer 160 elective inpatient cases across Northern Ireland. Decisions about the deferral of individual cases have been taken by clinicians. While we very much regret the impact on each and every one of these patients, these measures have been successful in enabling Trusts to ensure that anyone needing critical care has been able to have it. Whilst the controls remain until the end of the week, it has been agreed that each hospital should review its position and where practical undertake as much elective activity as possible.

The Board is continuing to work closely with Trusts and primary care colleagues to ensure that services are maintained for the community.

Emergency departments, whilst busy, are fully open and although primary care services continue to report they are busy, they are coping well.

Staff, particularly those in medical wards and in the intensive care environment, have worked very hard throughout recent days to ensure the minimum possible disruption to patients and their families.

Speaking at the briefing Chief Medical Officer, Dr Michael McBride said:

“For the majority of people, flu remains a mild, self-limiting illness that can be treated at home. For some people flu can be more serious requiring hospital care and tragically each year some people die. We have always said that we must not be complacent with what is still a relatively new virus.

I do want to absolutely reassure the public that there is no shortage of a safe, effective vaccine to provide protection against swine flu. Once again I would ask anyone in the ‘at-risk’ group who has not yet received the vaccine, to make sure they are protected against swine flu. At this stage the majority of people in this group have already received their vaccine thanks to the tremendous efforts of trusts, GPs and their staff. I would also like to thank hospital staff who have been treating people with flu at what is always a very busy period for them.”

For further information and advice on flu visit the Fluaware pages at: www.publichealth.hscni.net

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