17 Jun 2009

GP delays possible if swine flu load grows

5:22 pm on 17 June 2009

Doctors may be forced to postpone routine checks if the rapidly growing number of swine flue cases - up 18 since Tuesday to 127 - becomes too much to handle.

Jonathan Fox, president of the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners, says practices' workloads are increasing markedly.

Some routine checks, including cervical smears, could be postponed for a month or two, Dr Fox says.

He says no one will come to any harm by postponing the checks, and patients who need to see a doctor will be seen. However, it is up to each individual practice to work out ways to cope with extra patient visits, he says.

In some parts of New Zealand GPs are taking swabs from patients suspected of having swine flu, but in other areas specialist testing units have been set up.

In addition, GPs say some district health boards are failing to provide them with the protective equipment they need to handle people with swine flu.

They say they are increasingly busy as the number of people with swine flu continues to rise.

Medical Association chairman Peter Foley, a GP in Napier, says some health boards have made sure that doctors' practices have an adequate supply of gloves, special gowns and masks, but others have not.

Dr Foley says such equipment is needed to protect doctors and nurses, who are the frontline workers and who need to remain well during the swine flu outbreak.

Health Minister Tony Ryall told Parliament's health select committee on Wednesday that Australia is experiencing the same rapid increase in confirmed cases as New Zealand and now has more than 2,000 confirmed cases.

Mr Ryall says the Government's healthline has been deluged with calls and is to receive back-up from St John Ambulance call centres.

Family doctors will also staff a separate government telephone advice service to general practictioners who are fielding a growing number of cases in the community.

Mr Ryall told the select committee the Government is prepared to meet whatever extra costs are associated with managing the swine flu, such as buying more anti-viral medicines or a potential vaccine if it is needed.

Change of focus

Health officials say they will move within days to try to manage swine flu in the community, rather than seeking to contain individual cases.

Deputy Director of Public Health Fran McGrath says containing the virus has bought many weeks of valuable extra time in which to better understand and prepare for the H1N1 virus.

Dr McGrath says the virus is mild to moderate in most people and they can manage it at home without drugs.

Case numbers remain low by world standards but the rapid rise this week, including an extra 23 confirmed on Tuesday, indicates it is almost time to shift the focus to dealing with it in the community, she says. That would mean the anti-viral drug Tamiflu would be reserved for those with serious swine or seasonal flu only.

Helpline flooded with calls

The Ministry of Health says there has been a record number of calls to the Healthline number from people wanting information about swine flu. About 1,500 calls were answered on Monday - double the usual number.

Callers can find out more about swine flu or talk to a nurse about symptoms.

The ministry is encouraging people with underlying medical conditions who get the flu to seek medical help early if their condition worsens, but to keep hospital emergency departments for genuine emergencies.

The Healthline number is 0800 611 116.

Child in ward tests positive

A child in a paediatric ward at Wellington Hospital has tested positive for swine flu.

The child is in isolation on Wednesday and officials are tracing other people who have been in contact with the patient, including another child and several staff.

All are being screened and monitored for symptoms and most have been given Tamiflu as a preventive measure.

Meanwhile, a Wellington woman who has recovered from swine flu says the virus definitely feels worse than any normal flu.

Suzy Daniel has been in isolation at home under the supervision of the regional health service and was cared for by family members.

Ms Daniel says the H1N1 virus gave her a sore neck and ears, a fever, joint and leg pains, making walking difficult. She also had trouble breathing at times with coughing and a running nose.

Ms Daniel says she took Tamiflu, but found Panadol gave her more relief from the symptoms.

More Tamiflu on way

More stocks of the drug used to treat swine flu are due to arrive in New Zealand this week.

Tamiflu producer Roche says there has been a massive increase in demand for the medicine over the past two weeks. A shipment of 10,000 packs will arrive on Wednesday and another of 20,000 is due on Friday.

Roche New Zealand sales and marketing director Stuart Knight says the company will increase its global production to 110 million packets over the next five months.

Pharmacist Warren Flaunty says pharmacies are allowed to dispense Tamiflu without a prescription during the winter months - but only to patients with seasonal influenza.

Pharmacy stocks of Tamiflu are additional to the stockpile held by the Government, which is enough to treat about 30% of the population of 4 million.