6 Jul 2009

Helpline, hospitals busy after swine flu deaths

6:12 pm on 6 July 2009

Hundreds of people called a free healthline and one hospital struggled to deal with an influx of patients worried about swine flu, as details emerged over the weekend of the country's first deaths linked to the virus.

Zachary Wilson, 19, had flu-like symptoms before he died at home in Hamilton on Sunday 28 June. Waikato Medical Officer of Health Felicity Dumble says Mr Wilson was a smoker and had a history of asthma.

On Thursday, a 42-year-old man, who had underlying medical conditions, died in Christchurch.

A young girl, also with underlying medical conditions died in Wellington Hospital on Saturday, the Ministry of Health says. She had earlier tested positive to swine flu.

The number of calls to the Ministry of Health's free Healthline increased by 40% on Saturday night when it received 2000 calls, just hours after the deaths were announced.

The ministry is bringing in extra nurses to staff the service due to the high number of callers. The healthline number is: 0800 611 116.

The total number of confirmed swine flu cases in New Zealand has reached 1059, compared with 961 on Sunday.

Hospitals in Wellington and Auckland report having exceptionally busy emergency departments dealing with both swine flu and seasonal influenza.

Staff at the Wellington Hospital's emergency department struggled over the weekend to deal with an influx of patients worried about swine flu. Wellington has the highest number of confirmed swine flu cases.

The hospital's director of emergency medicine, Peter Freeman, says more than 130 people came to the emergency department on Saturday and more than 140 on Sunday. The emergency department at Kenepuru Hospital in Porirua was also overwhelmed, he says.

Dr Freeman says many of those seen are likely to have swine flu and while hospitals are already full because it's a busy time of year, people who are unwell should not be deterred from going to hospital.

Health authorities are urging anyone with significant medical conditions who has flu to seek help if they have difficulty breathing, get drowsier or if paracetamol fails to lower their temperature.

Health Minister Tony Ryall told Morning Report there will be more pressure on emergency departments this winter, but people who have a severe case of flu should not hesistate to use the Healthline or ask GPs for advice.

Four seriously ill in hospital

Four people with swine flu remain in intensive care units around the country.

However a a 17-year-old woman in Wellington Hospital who had been in critical condition in intensive care is now in serious but stable condition

A 30-year-old woman who has been in the Wellington Hospital intensive care unit for several weeks remains in serious but stable condition.

A woman in her early 20s remains in critical condition in Hawke's Bay Regional Hospital's intensive care unit, but a man who was in the unit on Saturday has now been transferred to a ward.

Two people remain in a critical condition in Auckland Hospital's intensive care unit with swine flu.

Wellington had the greatest number of confirmed cases with 292, followed by Auckland with 202 and Canterbury with 234.

The number of cases is likely to be under-estimated since routine testing for swine flu is no longer being done.

Further deaths 'almost inevitable'

Director of Public Health Dr Mark Jacobs says a third or more of New Zealanders could catch swine flu before the pandemic is over, and while most will have a mild to moderate illness, more deaths are likely.

"If we keep on seeing a lot more community spread, which is very likely, then I think it is almost inevitable that we will see some more deaths," he says.

He says New Zealand records about 400 deaths a year from seasonal influenza.

Virologist Lance Jennings says swine flu seems to be overriding seasonal influenza, as at the moment moment only a third of the cases nationally are seasonal.

Dr Jennings says this raises the possibility that the mortality associated with swine flu may actually be lower than would be seen with seasonal flu, though he cautions this may not necessarily be the case.