HSE chiefs have admitted their anti-flu vaccine is for a different strain of the illness than the one which has hit the country, prompting fears a major outbreak will send the trolley crisis spiralling.
With Ireland in the grip of an eight-week flu season, HSE director general Tony O’Brien warned of particular “risks” as he made the revelation while giving evidence to the Oireachtas health committee on the bed shortage in hospitals which saw more than 600 patients forced onto trolleys and chairs last week.
“An added complication is that the particular strain of flu which has traversed the Atlantic, as it always does each year, is not the strain of flu that was predicted and therefore is not the strain of flu for which we vaccinated the health workers and the general population, so there are particular risks in that area,” said Mr O’Brien.
The warning came after Health Minister Leo Varadkar insisted people should take the vaccine as he admitted to the committee a flu outbreak was already under way. “It is the case now that influenza-like illness rates have risen from 15.5 per 100,000 to 29 per 100,000 this week,” said Mr Varadkar. “So we are seeing an influenza outbreak, so obviously the advice to that is what it always is — people who are high-risk should get vaccinated.”
Mr O’Brien made it clear the flu outbreak could have a negative impact on the trolley crisis.
“This is a real time situation, it will obviously be influenced by how long current pressures exist, by what the weather does to us… and indeed by what the influenza-like illness index produces,” he said.
“We are now in the flu season — we have seen our first spike. We, therefore, are on particular alert for a period of about eight weeks, which is what we would expect the flu season to be.”
So far, the flu season has seen three deaths linked to the illness, with those most at risk including people over 65 and children with chronic illnesses. Department of Health sources said people should still use the vaccine as it was still effective, but may take longer to work.
Fianna Fáil health spokesman Billy Kelleher said the new flu vaccine risk was worrying. “This could lead to a spiral in the trolley situation if they do not plan for an outbreak of flu and respiratory conditions associated with it,” he said.
Mr Kelleher said that Mr Varadkar had not moved with enough speed or urgency to get a grip on the situation with trolleys which had long been predicted.
INMO general secretary Liam Doran expressed concern the vaccine issue had not been raised by the department at a meeting of a special task force on the issue on Wednesday. “I would be concerned if the wrong flu jab has been used, as well as the effects of the turn in the weather,” he said.
Mr Varadkar defended his handling of the trolley crisis, telling the committee the number of patients on trolleys yesterday was 256, down from 280 on the same day last year.
Mr O’Brien added there were not enough resources for upgrading many public nursing homes, a move ordered under new standards brought in by Hiqa.
The HSE says the vaccine is available free of charge from GPs for people in at-risk groups, and from chemists for everyone aged over 65.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved