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RUSH FOR VACCINES

...but none available at some health centres; Khan assures orders placed for more

By Anna Ramdass and Kim Boodram

Hospitals and health centres are flooded with people panicking and rushing to be vaccinated against the Influenza A (H1N1) virus, commonly known as “swine flu”.

Health Minister Dr Fuad Khan last night issued an appeal again to the population to not panic and assured vaccines will be available at vari­ous health centres by next week.

The Express visited various health facilities yesterday and was told the vaccine was not available.

Khan said the vaccine is in stock at some health centres, but an order has been placed for more, and some 15,000 will be available by next week for the immunisation programme.

“I am trying to stop the pa­nic, people are putting a strain on the system but we cannot turn them back,” said Khan.

He said because the symptoms of the swine flu are that of the common cold, there is an influx at the hospitals.

Khan said people with very high fevers and severe tightness of the chest and throat should seek medical attention, but there was no need to rush to the hospital if you are sneezing and coughing.

The minister said every patient will be seen and sent home as the ma­jority will not have the H1N1 virus.

He said simple preventative measures can be taken such as washing your hands regularly and covering your nose and mouth when snee­zing and coughing.

“They (people) don’t have to rush for it, it will be coming next week; just exercise the preventative measures,” said Khan.

The vaccine, he said, provides a maximum coverage of about one year.

Chairman of the North-Central Re­gional Health Authority (NCRHA) Dr Shehenaz Mohammed  confirmed to the Express yesterday that no vaccines were available at Mt Hope, Arima or Chaguanas, but orders were placed at the ministry.

She said on the heels of the public disclosure that the swine flu virus could have possibly resulted in two deaths in this country, there was a rush at hospitals and health facilities—in particular, the children’s hospital.

“There are twice as many people coming to the children’s hospital; everyone is frightened and pan­icking and coming in for every illness,” she said.

She noted at the Mt Hope Children’s accident and emergency department, there were some 180 patients registered within a 12-hour period—double the usual number.

Mohammed added the waiting time has also doubled, so patients have to wait for some five and a half hours for care.

“We are asking people not to panic; there is no need to rush to the hospitals,” she said, adding vaccines should be available at the St Joseph enhanced health facility by Monday.

“I am pleading with patients because the symptoms are that of a respiratory illness; we understand the population is worried, but we have put as much as we can in place to deal with the issue,” she said.

She said the hospitals were rea­dy and isolation areas were put in place to treat persons who are suspected to have the virus.

“We have the protective N95 masks, isolation rooms and doctors are on alert for any respiratory illness that may be swine flu,” she said.

She added patients with respiratory illness at the hospital are being monitored closely as they are at high risk for death.

The Mt Hope children’s hospital was packed with children and parents with frustrated faces when the Express visited yesterday. 

One parent said she was waiting for more than six hours for her son to be attended to.

At the St Joseph enhanced health facility, scores of people were waiting to be seen by doctors.

Masks were given to people who were coughing and sneezing, and even persons who looked healthy and well demanded masks to guard against catching the virus.

A doctor at the facility said people were visiting throughout the day and enquiring whether the vaccine was available. One man got irate after being told to return next week.

During visits to the Chaguanas and Couva health centres yesterday morning, the Express was told the vaccine was in stock.

However, later checks revealed that in actuality, the vaccine had been distributed to county offices yesterday and were yet to be picked up by health centres.

“It’s up to the health centres to send for the vaccines from their staff when it arrives at the county hospital,” the Express was told by one nurse.

“What may have happened is that one or two health centres might have collected if the vaccine arrived at their county office before noon. The others might do so on Mon­day morning.”

Swine flu is not being treated as an epidemic, another nurse said, but the disclosure on Wednesday by Khan that two locals may have died of the flu-type virus, one at the San Fernando General Hospital, had caused a surge of panicked citizens rushing to be vaccinated.

Speaking anonymously, a staff member at the Chaguanas District Health Facility said yesterday the public had not yet become overwhel­ming in its demand for the vaccine, but people coming in for other out-patient or emergency services were asking for it.

“There has to be some education of the public on who is considered high-risk, so that people understand why they might be turned away,” the staff member said.

At the Couva Health Facility, one staff member said the centre was being inundated with calls from people wanting to have their children vaccinated.

“There are a lot of respiratory problems in children in this general area; some people believe it is due to the heavy industry,” the source said.

“So we are getting a lot of calls from anxious parents about children with asthma and bronchitis. There is also a large population of older people who fall into the high-risk category,” the staff member said.

In Arima, there was a similar story of the high incidence of respi­ratory problems in children. The Express was told two different tales — on the one hand, the vaccine was available and later on, it was not.

The Express understands private healthcare providers have also been trying to source the vaccines for patients but were told they were out of stock.

One doctor said he had called both companies that sell the vaccine and was told they were out of stock but will be getting soon. 

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