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Wards jammed by flu victims
27.06.2001 By MONIQUE DEVEREUX HEALTH REPORTER
A flu outbreak sweeping the country is putting severe strain on the public hospital system.
Wards are full, patients are sleeping in corridors and three major hospitals have called off operations.
One of the country's top virologists, Dr Lance Jennings of Canterbury Health, said that in the past week the number of reported flu cases around the country had doubled.
Around 100 out of every 100,000 New Zealanders - roughly 4000 people - have reported the flu.
Dr Jennings said the rapid increase was an indication of higher rates to come.
Overcrowding in wards has prompted hospitals to urge people suffering from flu symptoms to see their GPs first.
Auckland, Middlemore and Waikato Hospitals all put off some operations yesterday because they did not have enough beds. More operations are expected to be called off today.
It is the second time in as many weeks that surgery has been interrupted at Middlemore, and Waikato has been forced to reduce surgery lists to free staff and bed space for several days.
Auckland Hospital staff are desperately juggling beds to ensure mastectomy operations - removing breasts from women with cancer - are cancelled only as a last resort.
Yesterday, Middlemore telephoned 15 people and told them their non-urgent surgery would not go ahead. Auckland cancelled 10 operations, and at Waikato up to four of the 60 daily procedures are being cancelled.
The operations, which range from hernia repair to minor plastic surgery, will be rescheduled.
The problem is being caused by a high number of flu patients taking up beds and staff being off sick.
Hospitals throughout the country are facing similar problems, with hundreds of people pouring into emergency departments.
At North Shore Hospital yesterday afternoon, some people were waiting in the foyer because they could not fit into the emergency waiting room. Some patients are waiting more than 24 hours for a bed in a ward after assessment in the acute assessment unit.
By 5.30 pm yesterday one of Auckland Hospital's less urgent patients had waited 47 hours for a bed.
But hospital staff say many patients are waiting for needlessly long times and would receive the same treatment a lot quicker from their own GPs. Many either did not realise they could get the treatment from a GP or were choosing to wait longer for hospital treatment because they would not have to pay.
Middlemore's chief operating officer, Brian Rousseau, agreed that the reason behind the surge in emergency room attendances could be partly economic.
"We do provide a free service in emergency. People need to be aware that if they have to come in for less urgent illness, they may well have to wait a long time."
It is the same in Rotorua, Tauranga and Whangarei, and the majority of less urgent cases involve influenza.
Three strains are in circulation, influenza B and the New Caledonia-like and Moscow-like viruses.
In Auckland the majority of cases are the New Caledonia-like strain. The more serious Moscow-like virus is appearing more frequently in the South Island.
Dr Jennings said this virus had more often contributed to influenza deaths as a secondary complication in other illnesses, especially in elderly patients.
But he said all of the strains could be treated easily, or at least greatly alleviated, by specific prescription drugs available from GPs.
Waikato's emergency department last month treated the highest number of patients ever - almost 4000.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health has launched a recruitment drive in London in an attempt to lure travelling Kiwi nurses home and British nurses to a better lifestyle.
There are at present around 2000 nursing shortages in New Zealand hospitals, and this, say some hospital administrators, is exacerbating the patient overload.
-- Martin Thompson (email@example.com), June 27, 2001
Rampant flu still delaying surgeries
28.06.2001 By MONIQUE DEVEREUX health reporter More patients awaiting non-urgent surgery were put off yesterday as hospital beds continued to fill with patients suffering from the flu.
But the situation had improved at Auckland Hospital, where only five operations were cancelled yesterday, half the number of the day before.
This was not because of fewer patients arriving, but because more were becoming well enough to be discharged, freeing up beds.
At Waikato Hospital, patients were put on standby for some of today's surgery, rather than the surgery being cancelled outright.
The situation was to be reassessed this morning, but yesterday afternoon the hospital was 91 per cent full and more admissions were expected overnight, which may have tipped the balance in favour of cancelling the surgery by this morning.
At Middlemore Hospital, which cancelled 15 operations on Tuesday, chief operating officer Brian Rousseau said there were neither more nor less cancellations.
The cancelled procedures were all elective - from hernias to minor plastic surgery - although at Auckland Hospital some mastectomies were in danger of being cancelled earlier this week.
Kay Hyman, operations manager surgical services, said mastectomy operations were classed as elective surgery only because a date had to be scheduled well in advance.
But she said the seriousness of the procedure - removing the breast of a woman with cancer - meant that everything was done to ensure they were the last to be cancelled.
Figures from around the country show that about 4000 people have sought medical attention for the flu this week - double last week's figure.
The national rate was about 124 cases of flu per 100,000 people.
Tauranga has the highest infection rate of the individual health districts: 767 cases per 100,000 people. In the Eastern Bay of Plenty the rate was 500.
The three Auckland health districts - Waitemata, Counties-Manukau and Auckland - recorded a combined rate of about 201, although South Auckland had the most.
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), June 27, 2001.