Lockdown after flu fatalities at two Hunter centres

THE NSW Opposition spokesman for health, Dr Andrew McDonald, has warned of a significant Influenza A, H3N2 outbreak after the death of three people at two Hunter disability and aged care facilities.

More than 50 residents at Kanangra, in the grounds of Morisset Hospital, and Stockton Centre have been quarantined after showing symptoms of the potentially deadly flu.

The Newcastle Herald understands the alarm was raised after two men, both in their 60s, from Kanangra, and a woman in her 40s, from Stockton, died in the past week after exhibiting flu-like symptoms.

The latest death occurred at Stockton yesterday and triggered the NSW Ministry of Health to intervene and place both facilities under lockdown.

Hunter New England public health physician David Durrheim said Influenza A, H3N2, considered the dominant strand of flu in Australia, posed significant problems because the virus didn’t perfectly match the vaccine.

‘‘Whereas with H1N1 the virus was perfectly matched to the vaccine, in this case it’s drifted slightly,’’ he said.

‘‘The vaccine still has the potential to protect people from the virus but in some cases it will fail.’’

All residents at both centres were vaccinated against the flu earlier this year but Dr Andrew McDonald said it was a great concern that the H3N2 vaccine wasn’t completely effective.

‘‘It’s a real worry when you have a highly vaccinated population that cannot be protected from a fatal respiratory illness,’’ he said.

‘‘If 51 people have it then there is a potential for a significant outbreak.

‘‘It’s highly transmittable and there is a serious risk that this illness could become wider spread throughout the population.

‘‘This incident requires an urgent investigation from public health.’’

Dr Durrheim said both facilities had very high immunisation coverage and staff were being careful to keep those affected apart from staff and other residents.

Minister for Disability Services Andrew Constance said staff had adopted strict infection control practices at both facilities, which are home to more than 450 people, in a bid to stop the virus from spreading.

“Fourteen people who had symptoms – seven at each site – have now recovered and the affected residents have been isolated,” Mr Constance said.

“Cleanliness and hygiene procedures at both centres have been intensified and staff are wearing protective equipment.”

Lake Macquarie MP Greg Piper said the three deaths were of great concern to the elderly and disabled population of the Hunter.

‘‘There is always the possibility for a flu outbreak at these kinds of institutions that involve high-density living,’’ he said.

‘‘I’m pleased to see they’re taking precautions to avoid a full-scale outbreak and are protecting staff.

‘‘I think the important thing to remember is that this is a rare event, there is nothing about the facility that indicates it was prone to this sort of thing.’’

Newcastle MP Tim Owen offered his personal condolences to the families and carers of the deceased and said that health authorities had been deployed to help staff.

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