Deaths of 5 healthy people raise concern on severity of swine flu

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 December, 2009, 12:00am

Concerns are growing about the increasing severity of swine flu after five people with previously good medical records died from the virus this month.

At least two of them suffered double infections - the H1N1 swine flu virus and bacterial infections.

A review of the five patients, all women, showed that their conditions deteriorated rapidly and they did not respond well to antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu.

University of Hong Kong microbiologist Dr Ho Pak-leung said at least two patients were infected with the H1N1 virus and also bacteria. The bacteria included Staphylococcus aureus, commonly found on the skin and in the nose, and pneumococcus, which can cause pneumonia.

'The conditions of these patients deteriorated very rapidly. There was not much those patients could have done. Like most people, they did not see doctors when the flu-like symptoms were still mild.

'But by the time they sought medical treatment, their conditions were already very bad. They died after their lungs and other organs were badly damaged suddenly within hours.'

Ho said the swine flu virus first affected the respiratory tract, making it easy for the bacteria to attack the patients.

A total of 52 people have died from swine flu in Hong Kong.

Two of the five patients died just a day after seeking treatment at accident and emergency departments.

'As swine flu can attack so fast ... vaccination is the best way to get protection,' Ho said.

A 56-year-old woman who developed flu on November 29 attended the accident and emergency department at Kwong Wah Hospital on December 3. She died five days later.

On December 15, a 36-year-old woman collapsed in a shopping arcade and was taken to United Christian Hospital. She had a fever and severe pneumonia and was put on a ventilator. She died the next day.

She tested positive for both Staphylococcus aureus and pneumococcus.

Another woman, aged 24, with no underlying diseases died in North District Hospital on December 17.

She developed a fever and chest discomfort on December 9 and went to the hospital's accident and emergency department on December 16.

A 59-year-old woman died in Kwong Wah Hospital on December 19. She arrived with flu symptoms on December 12 and was transferred to intensive care two days later.

On December 19, a 30-year-old woman, also with no chronic diseases, attended Queen Mary Hospital's accident and emergency department suffering from a fever and a cough.

She was admitted to an isolation ward and prescribed Tamiflu and antibiotics. Her condition deteriorated and she was transferred to the intensive care unit on December 21.

She died on December 23. Tests confirmed that she had Staphylococcus aureus.

In July, a Filipino seaman who died of swine flu in Hong Kong had also been infected with the drug- resistant superbug MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).

Ho said it was suspected that the 56-year-old patient at Kwong Wah Hospital also had bacterial infections.

Postmortem examinations will be conducted on some patients to gain a better understanding of how swine flu kills.

Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, head of microbiology at the University of Hong Kong, said last week that patients with severe cases of swine flu reacted poorly to antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu.

He also said they were more likely to develop inflammatory infections even though the virus in their body was weakening.