Monday, September 21, 2009

Swine flu hotline staff are 'making deadly errors'

By Daniel Martin

Doctors across the country believe patients are dying because of blunders by staff at swine flu call centres.

Serious illnesses such as meningitis, tonsillitis and pneumonia had been missed by the untrained staff, they said.

Thirty-seven per cent of GPs told researchers they have had to pick up the pieces of treating those wrongly told by operators they had swine flu.
Judgment calls: Employees at an NHS centre in Watford, Herts

Judgment calls: Employees at an NHS centre in Watford, Herts

And three doctors said their patients had died as a result of the errors, amid fears that many more cases have gone unreported.

The research by Pulse magazine revealed that 91 per cent of GPs believe Tamiflu should no longer be given to everyone with swine flu symptoms for fear this could lead to the virus developing resistance.

The survey also underlines growing concern over the effectiveness of the National Pandemic Flu Service hotline.

At the height of the epidemic last month, the Mail revealed that lines were being staffed by 16-year-olds waiting for their GCSE results.

One GP, who said he did not want to be identified, told Pulse a patient had died of meningitis after an incorrect telephone diagnosis.

Two other doctors, one from Dorset and the other from Wiltshire, said their patients had died in similar circumstances.

Another doctor in Derbyshire said a three-year-old had been diagnosed with swine flu and given Tamiflu by the hotline - but was subsequently diagnosed with bacterial pneumonia and admitted to hospital.

The GP said: 'It was unlikely she ever had swine flu. It's near-impossible to diagnose a febrile illness over the phone, and I am afraid one could miss meningitis or other serious illnesses by presuming it is swine flu.'

A doctor on Tyneside said one of her patients, first thought to have had swine flu, had subsequently been diagnosed with salmonella, and was admitted to hospital after becoming severely dehydrated.

Ellen Wright, a GP in Greenwich, South-East London, said there had been many reports of adverse reactions to Tamiflu, which was given to hundreds of schoolchildren early on in the outbreak.

'There have been a lot of complications, especially in children given it in schools and at the beginning of the outbreak, and I suspect that's what a lot of GPs have been seeing,' she said.

'There's new evidence that resistance is developing in the U.S., and their Food and Drugs Administration is reviewing its policy. It's time for the Department of Health to review it too.'

A range of lesser Tamiflu side effects were reported by GPs, including vomiting, diarrhoea and lethargy.

Last year, there were 3,000 cases of meningitis with 300 deaths and hundreds left disabled.

The early symptoms can easily be mistaken for those of flu and include fever, headache, stiff neck, dislike of bright light, drowsiness, joint pain, vomiting, diarrhoea, confusion and in some cases, but not all, a rash.

Bridie Taylor, education director of the Meningitis Trust, said: 'We are urging everyone to be aware of the signs and symptoms as the colder months begin to creep in.

'It is all the more important to err on the side of caution and seek medical attention as a matter of urgency if you suspect the disease.'