Press Release

Statement by the Department of Health and Children on influenza

The information available to the Department from the health boards, hospitals, the Virus Reference Laboratory and the National Disease Surveillance Centre regarding the current levels of illness involving influenza-like symptoms, is that while there is a high level of serious viral and bacterial illness at present, this is due to a range of viral and bacterial agents, including influenza.

The current level of influenza being detected does not constitute an epidemic. Of some 400 samples submitted by doctors to the Virus Reference Laboratory for analysis, approximately 60 have been identified as influenza. The strain of influenza identified, H3N2, is covered by the vaccine being used to immunise at-risk persons this winter. It is recognised, however, that there is a very high level of illness in the community at present.

The Department has been informed that there are some indications that the level of activity in GP surgeries is beginning to level off at this stage. However the effects of these illnesses continue to impact significantly on acute hospitals, particularly the Accident & Emergency hospitals in the Eastern Health Board region. Accident and Emergency and other emergency admissions to acute hospitals providing Accident and Emergency services in the region have increased significantly in recent weeks. These admissions are now approximately 25% greater than would normally be expected at this time of the year.

Hospitals themselves are also experiencing a significant increase in the numbers of hospital staff suffering from these illnesses. These combined factors are giving rise to extensive pressures on hospital services generally and in particular on the Accident and Emergency Departments.

While hospitals are managing the situation, persons who wish to seek medical help are advised to attend their family doctor in the first instance, rather than immediately attending hospital Accident and Emergency Departments. The Department wishes to reiterate the general medical advice that the recommended treatment for anyone suffering from influenza or a similar illness is to remain in bed, to drink plenty of fluids and to take paracetamol.

While the majority of illness currently being experienced is not due to influenza, persons over 65 years of age and other at-risk persons (those with chronic respiratory disease, chronic heart disease, diabetes mellitus (adults) or with suppressed immune systems) who have not been vaccinated against influenza may still attend their family doctor for vaccination.

The quantity of influenza vaccine purchased in 1999, at approximately 300,000 doses, was the same as in 1998, which itself represented a 50% increase on the quantity purchased in previous years. Of this quantity, to date some 275,000 doses have been distributed to health boards for supply to general practitioners.

The Minister wishes to express his appreciation of the efforts of hospital staff and of general practitioners, who have been coping with the increased workload, particularly during the holiday period.

He has instructed his Department to continue to monitor the situation on a daily basis.