Hospitals must not be caught cold again
With more than 430 deaths blamed on the latest flu outbreak, which saw more patients than beds, selection and promotion of a seasonal vaccine is critical
Annual winter flu peaks that fill hospitals and doctors’ waiting rooms and hit workplaces and schools did not prepare us for an unprecedented surge in flu cases during the summer. That does not augur well for the next winter peak, given a dire prediction about the shortage of hospital beds. Hospitals have struggled to cope recently with the demand for beds of up to 130 per cent of their designed capacity. At the same time some non-urgent patients waited more than 10 hours to see a doctor. Health authorities had to ask doctors to work overtime, delay non-urgent surgery and treatment and negotiate access to private hospital beds. More than 430 deaths have been attributed to the outbreak.
After that experience the prospect of the usual winter flu surge in a few months may seem like business as usual. That is likely to be far from the case, even though we should be better prepared, with fewer medical staff on leave than during the summer and despite an increase of 500 beds from January announced by the Hospital Authority.
This is less than 2 per cent of the 28,000 beds in public hospitals. The authority’s cluster services director, Dr Allen Cheung Wai-lun, admits it falls well short of the anticipated demand for 1,500 extra beds if hospital occupancy rates are to be kept below 100 per cent.
Cheung has promised to detail peak-flu preparations by December. They must include, foremost, a timely decision about which of the seasonal flu vaccines being developed is most appropriate for Hong Kong and assurance of adequate supplies. This should be backed up by a public education campaign to maximise take-up of vaccinations and promote sensible precautions.
There is, after all, no cure for influenza, only partial relief from the symptoms conferred by antiviral drugs, as it cannot be treated or prevented by antibiotics. Vaccination is the only existing method of prevention, or reducing the severity of infection.
The deliberations of a government scientific committee monitoring the development of vaccines for seasonal flu are therefore critical to the response of the public health system.