Fergal Bowers: Flu epidemic would test health service
The latest data from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre shows influenza cases at very low levels in Ireland and in Europe.
That's not surprising as the start of the real ‘flu season is normally a few months away and tends to peak from December through to March.
We see what happens in the southern hemisphere over the summer here, and devise the flu vaccine with the key strains circulating there, which are likely to arrive over winter in the northern hemisphere.
So why the concern now about Ireland’s ability to cope with a flu outbreak?
A major outbreak could certainly test the health service.
This year, Australia has experienced a very difficult flu outbreak with many deaths and hospitalisations.
The flu strain H3N2 seems to be a major factor and has, along with others, been built into the winter vaccine for Ireland.
Overall, the vaccine offers about 60% protection, but is higher in certain cases.
The question is that with heavy hospital overcrowding, a record number of patients on waiting lists and concerns about bed and staff shortages - could the Irish health service cope with a major flu outbreak?
We had a crisis before with the H1N1 human swine flu pandemic, which began in 2009.
There were deaths and it put huge pressure on services.
The Health Service Executive does not believe the service would collapse in an outbreak and if an outbreak happens, it says it will deal with it.
That would probably mean postponing planned operations to free up beds, especially for the elderly and there are also concerns about whether there are enough intensive care beds and isolation rooms for serious cases.
The best way to deal with a flu outbreak is good planning by the HSE.
Some commentators are predicting something close to a doomsday scenario if we get a very bad flu outbreak.
The best protection against this is that all those in at-risk groups get vaccinated now and also that others consider the benefit of flu vaccination.
As a responsible employer, RTÉ has already offered flu vaccination to all staff.
Other companies and organisations do likewise as part of good planning.
Also, health staff need to take a lead and get vaccinated in higher numbers, otherwise what kind of message does that send to the population?
Then we hope for the best, but be as ready as possible for the worst.