THE Department of Health has side stepped a request to confirm the total number of deaths from the recent swine flu outbreak in Northern Ireland – just months after it was forced to issue weekly death reports to the public.
The department was severely criticised earlier this year for restricting information it disclosed on swine flu and was eventually forced to backtrack on its policy not to release statistics on fatalities.
However, in response to a series of questions from The Detail, the department has now said it still considers reporting of individual deaths to be “disproportionate and highly distressing for families of the deceased”. And it argues that figures may be incomplete and misleading.
A spokeswoman would not confirm the total number of deaths and how many of these people had underlying health problems. Instead, we were referred to the flu bulletin published by the Public Health Agency (PHA).
The spokeswoman also said that the department does not hold information on the total number of patients treated in intensive care for swine flu during the 2010/11 flu season and how many of these people had underlying health problems.
The PHA website states that there were 30 swine flu related deaths in Northern Ireland reported up to March 23rd. Of these, 27 patients had an underlying health problem, two did not and one is not yet known.
The behind the scenes discussions on the Department of Health’s controversial handling of recent swine flu deaths in Northern Ireland can also be revealed today.
Documents – totalling around 1,000 pages – were released by the department in response to a Freedom of Information request from The Detail.
The papers show the truth of the vaccine shortage, the pressure the department came under to announce information on swine flu deaths and how an attempt to avoid public panic backfired.
Our request asked for copies of all internal communication (including letters, emails, minutes of meetings and any other documentation) from October 1st, 2010, to February this year relating to how publicity for the latest swine flu outbreak should be handled.
We asked for this to include internal communication within the department and communication between the Department of Health and other government departments and/or ministers.
A memo from the Department’s Health Protection Branch to Minister Michael McGimpsey in October 2010 reports the first lab-confirmed case of swine flu in Northern Ireland in the 2010/11 flu season. However, he is told: “This is a non-issue and there are no plans to make a news story of it.”
An eight-year-old girl was the first person to die from swine flu on November 1st and between this date and February 9th a total of 29 swine flu-related deaths had been reported in Northern Ireland.
The issue of vaccine shortage is also addressed in the documents. However, it paints a confused picture.
On January 6th, Mr McGimpsey was briefed by officials to tell other ministers that there was no issue about sufficient supply of vaccine in Northern Ireland.
On the same day John Compton, chief executive of the Health and Social Care Board, told the Stephen Nolan radio show: “There is no problem with vaccines in Northern Ireland.”
However, just four days later Dr Richard Smithson (Consultant in Communicable Disease Control at the Public Health Agency) wrote to the department to say that unless 10,000 doses could be obtained from Scotland, Northern Ireland would run out of vaccine within two days.
Emails also show how the department was attempting to locate tens of thousands of unused vaccines held by some doctors at a time when many GPs had to resort to using last year’s swine flu vaccine after central stocks of seasonal flu vaccine ran out.
An email from Michael McGimpsey’s private secretary reveals that the Minister asked department officials to find out the number of vaccines given to MLA Dr Kieran Deeny and the number of patients vaccinated at his practice. This request came after the Independent West Tyrone Assembly member – who is a GP – spoke out publicly about the vaccine shortage.
An email from the private office to Department staff confirms that 100,000 doses of Enzira vaccine were purchased for use in Northern Ireland before it emerged that there was an increased incidence of convulsions in children who received the same vaccine in Australia.
GPs here were advised not to give it to children aged under five but the issue is not referred to again anywhere in the massive amount of documentation released to The Detail.
We asked the department if it can be certain that none of the Enzira vaccine was given to children aged under five.
The department response concludes: “Whilst every effort was made to minimise the likelihood of a child under five receiving Enzira vaccine, final responsibility remains with the prescriber to ensure that the most appropriate vaccine is given to each individual patient.”
The documents also show how the Department tried to reassure the public after it emerged in January that one in every three swine flu deaths in the UK had been in Northern Ireland.