Flu outbreak kills 17 people in South Australia as nursing homes go into lockdown

| 13.05,19. 02:49 PM |

Flu outbreak kills 17 people in South Australia as nursing homes go into lockdown

Photo:High demand for flu vaccinations has put a strain on supplies. (Supplied: Pixabay)

The death toll from influenza outbreaks in South Australia this year has risen to 17, including 13 residents of aged care homes, as an "unprecedented" flu season continues to wreak havoc across the state.

Chief medical officer Professor Paddy Phillips said there had been 53 outbreaks in nursing homes since the start of the year and at least 18 facilities were in lockdown.

He said there were 12,339 influenza cases as of last Saturday, compared with 1,348 at the same time last year.

Among the deaths was a 15-year-old with no pre-existing conditions, while an additional seven people died in one week alone.

"We have never seen influenza in these numbers at this time of year," the professor said.

"Sadly, 13 of those have been in residential aged care facilities.

"There have been five in one facility, two in another and one in each of six others.

"That also means there have been four other deaths in the community that we know of from influenza, and that's why we very much encourage everyone, as they're doing, to get a flu shot every year."

Doctors hold emergency meeting

Eight doctors and members of the Immunisation Coalition (IC) held an emergency meeting on Friday.

Adelaide GP and IC member Dr Rod Pearce told ABC Radio Adelaide's David Bevan that doctors were "frustrated" by the situation along with the health system's response to the "unusual outbreak".

He said delayed access to the flu vaccine, specifically the version made for people over 65, had contributed to the problem, along with a "lack of consistencies" in handling outbreaks in residential facilities.

"The IC talked to the Department of Health before this season about a rollout across the state," Dr Pearce said.

"We have had discussions about getting a consistent and early rollout of [flu vaccines], and that hasn't happened this year for a whole lot of reasons, but it will certainly be on our agenda for next year."

Vaccine distribution questioned

A surge in flu cases earlier this season prompted authorities to attempt an early distribution of free vaccines for eligible people over 65 and children below five.

By the end of April, however, Flinders Medical Centre Hospital temporarily ran out of vaccines with 33,000 confirmed influenza cases across Australia since January 1.

Professor Phillips said the delivery of vaccines started in April but that the flu outbreak could have been limited had they been available in January.

"What I am confident about is we're doing our very best to meet the huge demand for influenza vaccine, which is the most effective thing to reduce the load of influenza in the community, and I'm encouraged by the extent of uptake in the population.

"It is unprecedented."

More than 450,000 vaccines have been distributed and Professor Phillips said there was no shortage.

Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas said more needed to be done to roll out vaccines.

"What is the serious, decisive action that the Government is going to take to ensure that everybody that does need the flu shot gets it and gets it quickly?" he said.

Nursing home resident needed vaccine

Joylene from Victor Harbor said her 97-year-old father, a resident of a nursing home, was diagnosed with influenza a fortnight ago.

He has since recovered, but ongoing outbreaks had left his facility in lockdown and residents "isolated in their rooms".

"When he was first diagnosed I had to take the precautions of wearing a mask when I was in his room and using the hand gel," Joylene said.

"Now that Dad is no longer infectious, I can take him out, but while he's there he's confined to his room as is everybody else."

She said her father's GP had visited two weeks before Easter because he had a cold.

She asked at the time when her father would be getting a flu vaccination, because she was "concerned they hadn't had it already, given they're such vulnerable people".

"I was told they would be getting it in two weeks, but about three weeks passed and they still hadn't had it and that was when we were notified Dad had the flu."

'No legal requirement to report cases'

Professor Phillips said there was no legal requirement for residential care facilities to notify of influenza outbreaks.

If they were notified, however, he said they would provide influenza advice and support, including adherence to Commonwealth guidelines.

Opposition health spokesman Chris Picton said that under the SA Public Health Act, the Government had to be notified of all influenza diagnoses.

"I think it's a bit hard for them to wipe their hands and say they don't know about this," he said.

"The responsibility is on the doctors or the laboratories to notify and there's a form that SA Health has they need to fill out.

"I understand that includes the location of the person, including whether it would be in an aged care facility."

He said there had been issues distributing the vaccine, "particularly the one for over 65 years to GPs", and there was "still some GPs saying they don't have that vaccine in stock and they're turning people away".

"I would have thought making sure it's in place in aged care would have been top of the list in getting the priority right."


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