Health funds replace hospitals in treating swine flu

Only those people at high risk for H1N1 or who develop complications will now be hospitalized, rather than all those found positive for the viral strain.

swine flu plane 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
swine flu plane 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
From now on and until further notice, adults and children who have the symptoms of H1N1 (swine) flu should go to their health fund community clinic instead of to a hospital emergency room, senior Health Ministry officials said on Sunday. Only those people at high risk for it or who develop complications will now be hospitalized, rather than all those found positive for the viral strain. At last count, 271 Israelis have been infected with swine flu in the last two months, the vast majority between the ages of 10 and 50. Older people apparently have natural immunity to the virus, and only younger people who were not exposed to a similar strain before have taken ill. Fortunately, all the cases here so far have been mild. More than 38,000 cases have been reported around the world, and 109 sufferers have died, mostly in countries with poor public health systems. In a briefing for health reporters at the ministry, Deputy Health Minister Ya'acov Litzman said that he wants the thousands of young people who will soon arrive to participate in the Maccabiah Games to be screened for the flu virus, as numerous young Jews who came from the US for birthright (Taglit) tours have been exposed. All arrivals at the air and sea ports will receive a booklet on H1N1 flu during the coming months. Public health services chief Dr. Itamar Grotto said that the US, not Mexico, is now the site of the most cases. "There have been thousands of reported cases there, but I think it is really tens of thousands," he said. "The authorities there don't have to examine and isolate all of them. They treat only those at risk. "Israeli authorities continue to want to examine those suspected of having swine flu, but if found to be positive, they will be asked to get treatment from their health fund in the community and to isolate themselves at home until they recover," Grotto said. "Every relevant doctor has been told what to do, but the ministry's lab continues to take samples and confirm cases," he added. Litzman joked that as a result of the flu, "we will close all schools on June 30," which is the official end of the state school year anyway. Yet summer camps will soon begin, haredi boys continue studying until Tisha Be'av (July 30), and most day care centers remain open until mid- to late August. Grotto said the ministry is "preparing guidelines" for these institutions. "If a child is sick, we recommend that they not be taken to class," he said. Maccabi Health Services became the first health fund to announce that it had set up a phone line (1-700-70-90-19) manned by nurses to screen callers who suspected they or their relatives had H1N1 flu symptoms. Fifty-six Maccabi flu clinics will be open to handle cases. It is not clear whether H1N1 will die out by itself this summer (because the virus has difficulty surviving heat and people spend more time outdoors and with windows open) or whether it will reappear in the fall or winter, alone or mixed with ordinary flu viruses. But the ministry is remaining alert, keeping a particular eye on Australia, where it is now winter, the officials said. The World Health Organization, which on June 11 declared swine flu a phase 6 emergency - meaning a worldwide pandemic is under way - has asked the five pharmaceutical companies that make flu vaccine not to begin manufacturing H1N1 shots for a few weeks so there will be enough time to produce regular flu strain vaccines. In any case, the companies are only in the development stages for a swine flu vaccine, and it is not clear whether it will be safe, effective or ready in time - or whether there will be a need for it by the time it's ready, Grotto asserted. Litzman said he will not allow the costs of dealing with H1N1 flu to come at the expense of the annual basket of medications allocated by the Finance Ministry - despite hints from the Treasury that it would affect from the basket's funds.