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Health Minister apologises to family after delay in swine flu confirmation

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Health Minister, Michael McGimpsey has apologised to the family of Orla O’Kane following the delay in informing them that she had confirmed swine flu.

An emergency meeting was held this morning between representatives of his Department, the Public Health Agency, the Western Trust and the Regional Virus Laboratory to determine what had happened and to learn lessons for the future. Following the meeting, the Minister said a number of urgent actions would now be taken forward.

These include:

  • A further urgent communication to doctors re-emphasising the importance of prescribing antivirals to those with underlying health conditions and to pregnant women with symptoms of swine flu;
  • Putting arrangements in place to offer swine flu vaccine to children and young people in special schools as soon as possible;
  • Further guidance to healthcare professionals on the follow-up and communication of all positive H1N1 (swine flu) results to patients;
  • Updated advice from the Chief Medical Officer in relation to funeral arrangements and the handling of remains.

Earlier the Minister met with Pat Ramsey MLA and the Western Trust met with the O’Kane family.

The Minister said: "I want to offer my sincere apologies to the family of Orla O’Kane for the distress caused by the delay in being told their child had confirmed swine flu. This was clearly unacceptable and only created further anxiety for a family who were grieving for their child.

“It is essential that every step is taken to try to prevent such a situation from happening again. I asked the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Michael McBride to hold an urgent meeting of relevant organisations this morning to determine what exactly happened in this case.

"Following his meetings today, the Chief Medical Officer has advised me that there are still some matters which require clarification but what is clear is that there has been an unacceptable breakdown in communication. Dr McBride has advised me of immediate steps that need to be taken and I have asked that he provide me with a full report on this matter and any further actions necessary as soon as possible.

"Orla’s death has also highlighted the particular vulnerability of children in special schools to the complications of swine flu.

"The Public Health Agency has been providing advice to parents and staff at this school. I have also asked the Agency to look urgently at how quickly children in special schools could receive the swine flu vaccine which offers the best long-term protection. In the meantime, I have asked for further advice to be issued to these schools to remind staff of the need for vigilance in relation to swine flu.”

Chief Medical Officer, Dr Michael McBride said he will also be issuing updated guidance on funeral arrangements and the handling of remains.

He said: “I want to assure the public that there is no particular risk from viewing or touching the remains at a funeral or wake. This is a virus that is transmitted through coughing and sneezing and is currently circulating widely in the community.

“Any parents who have concerns that their child may have symptoms of swine flu should immediately contact their GP or out-of-hours service for advice and assessment. In particular, children with underlying medical conditions and chronic neurological conditions such as cerebral palsy should be assessed for antiviral treatment.

“For parents of otherwise healthy children who may have been in contact with this child, I would like to assure them that if their child is not displaying symptoms of swine flu and is otherwise healthy there is no need for antiviral treatment.”

Notes to editors:

1. The UK has moved to a treatment phase in relation to managing the swine flu pandemic. This means that our focus is on treating those people who actually have swine flu and in particular those at higher risk of developing complications. In addition, the routine testing of suspected cases and the tracing of close contacts of a symptomatic patient has been discontinued. The level of flu in the community is therefore being monitored using a range of surveillance mechanisms through GP practices, Out of Hours centres, antiviral prescriptions and hospital surveillance systems. This enables us to monitor flu levels and identify trends in activity.

  • Some groups of people are more at risk of serious illness if they catch swine flu. Those with:
  • Chronic lung disease
  • Chronic heart disease
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Chronic liver disease
  • Chronic neurological disease
  • Immunosuppression (whether caused by disease or treatment)
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Patients who have had drug treatment for asthma within the past three years

As well as:

  • Pregnant women
  • Young children under five years old
  • People aged 65 years and older

It is vital that people in these higher risk groups contact their GP for assessment and if advised to start antivirals should start taking them within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms.

2. The Northern Ireland swine flu helpline number 0800 0514 142 is a freephone helpline for those who want more information about swine flu. Textphone 18001 0800 0 514 142.

3. The UK-wide flu information line on 0800 1 513 513 provides regularly updated advice on swine flu. This is also a freephone number.

4. Further information about swine flu can be found on the DHSSPS website and nidirect.

5. Media enquiries to the DHSSPS Press Office on 028 9052 0575. Out of office hours contact the Duty Press Officer via pager number 076 9971 5440 and your call will be returned.