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Got swine flu? Don't go to casualty

Fergus Walsh | 17:58 UK time, Wednesday, 24 June 2009

The huge increase in cases of H1N1 swine flu in the west Midlands has led to a sudden rush of the "worried well" to casualty.

The Heart of England NHS Trust, which runs three big hospitals, says it has had to set up sectioned-off areas in casualty to deal with people who fear they have the H1N1 virus.

At Heartlands Hospital in Birmingham, up to 100 extra people a day are turning up at casualty, which is something like a 25% increase as compared to usual.

The hospital is having to tie up medical staff to assess the influx of supposed swine flu cases. Anyone who does not have a fever - a temperature of over 38 degrees - plus two other symptoms (such as cough, headache or diarrhoea) is being sent home.

Many simply have a cough, a cold, or are feeling a bit "under the weather".

For a minority with obvious symptoms of the virus, the staff performs swab tests, and then sends those patients home as well. Dr Tony Bleetman, a consultant in the emergency department, says that if you do have the virus, you shouldn't be going to hospital, where you may spread the disease:

"Even if they have swine flu, it's mostly behaving like the common cold and we wouldn't expect people to come to hospital with that."

If you have concerns, the advice is to contact NHS Direct. But Dr Bleetman says that many of those turning up have done that:

"The problem is that significant numbers are being sent to us after consultation with NHS Direct and we think that NHS Direct are too quick to send people to hospital."

The problem began last week as the number of cases in the west Midlands began to soar. The Trust has appealed to "swine flu locals" (as they phrase it) to stay away.

I've mentioned the problem of the worried-well before. It is a real concern of the WHO that the anxious should not clog up hospital emergency rooms during a pandemic. Imagine if what's happening in the west Midlands gets repeated at hospitals across the UK as the virus spreads.

What's interesting is that the worried well have not been a problem in Scotland, where there was a peak in swine flu cases a few weeks ago. The Greater Glasgow and Clyde NHS which covers a region of two dozen hospitals, told me that they had not noticed any sudden influx at casualty. Bear in mind that Scotland has had the only death from swine flu.

Maybe the public health messages have been more effective there. Or perhaps there are simply more "worried well" (or, as harsher observers term them, hypochondriacs) south of the border. Discuss.

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