Health Minister Jerry Narace yesterday confirmed two men have died from the virus at the San Fernando General Hospital on Tuesday night.
“It is indeed difficult and sad for any Minister of Health to report fatalities to the nation. And although on a scientific level we expected this, on the human level, it remains disheartening and frustrating to lose lives to this new virus,” Narace said at a press conference yesterday at the ministry’s head office, Park Street, Port-of-Spain.
Another person also died at the hospital yesterday morning but the minister could not confirm if this was another swine flu victim as investigations were continuing into the cause of death. The sex of the deceased was not disclosed, although a hospital source said the victim was a woman.
The deaths of the two men come as a second wave of the virus hits many countries.
Dr Albert Persaud, executive medical director of the South West Regional Health Authority (SWRHA), said the first case was a 30-year-old man who went to the hospital 24 hours before he passed away. He described the man as being extremely ill because he was in respiratory distress when he was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit of the hospital.
Hospital consultants, specialising in severe respiratory illnesses, attended to the patient.
“The symptoms were so severe that he was placed on a machine to assist with his breathing. Unfortunately the illness proved to be more than the treatment offered and he passed away last (Tuesday) night,” Persaud said.
The second patient was a 42-year-old man who was admitted to the hospital from an unnamed private health institution also in severe respiratory distress. Similar treatment was administered but this patient also died on Tuesday night. Persaud said the fact that both men were admitted at such a late stage of the virus increased their risk of death.
Narace and Persaud said proper protocols were followed at the hospital but a team of ministry and SWRHA officials are conducting an audit into the treatment of the two men.
Narace added the treatment the second patient received at the private institution before being admitted to the hospital is also being investigated. He said based on the findings, the ministry hopes to issue policy statements advising the public to not wait until it was too late to seek treatment for symptoms of the virus. Officials are also conducting surveillance of family members, hospital staff and others who came into contact with the victims.
There have been 158 confirmed cases of swine flu in the country with the two deaths. According to statistics from the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) 3,406 deaths have been reported in 25 countries of the Americas.
Narace said PAHO has approved Government’s request for 260,000 doses of the Influenza A/ H1N1 vaccinations and the ministry is expecting delivery next month.
Chief Medical Officer Dr Anton Cumberbatch, who was also at the press conference, warned, “We have always maintained that even though the presentation of the virus in Trinidad and Tobago is mild, it remains dangerous which is why we keep insisting serious attention be paid to it.” Although when questioned about the names of the dead victims and the areas where they lived, Cumberbatch said this information remained confidential. When asked whether there was a possible link between these cases since both men died within hours of each other, Cumberbatch said deaths in areas where there is a swine flu outbreak are common.
However, a medical source at the hospital said the two men who died were from Princes Town and Penal. The third death which may have been due to the virus was a woman from Princes Town, the source said.
The woman was admitted to the hospital on Monday and was “extremely ill” the source said. However, because there were no beds available on the medical wards, the woman remained screened off on a gurney in an emergency room in the Accident and Emergency department up until the time of her death. The source said there was great concern among medical staff when a doctor received the X-Ray results of the woman.
“When the results came in, you couldn’t even make out her lungs. It was very bad,” the source said.
“Her condition was deteriorating so quickly she was experiencing severe respiratory problems and had to be put on a ventilator.” The source said the woman died early Tuesday morning, hours before the deaths of the two men. A staff meeting was held on Tuesday and masks were distributed to health workers and the ambulance bay was cordoned off.
A senior doctor told Newsday the virus appears to not be responding to antibiotics. “It seems to be very vicious, it seems to be very different from what we have seen before,” the doctor said. In the release issued Tuesday night, the ministry said while two patients had died at that time, five more people were hospitalised with respiratory symptoms, four of whom were on respiratory support. The medical officials at the press conference yesterday said they had no additional information about these persons.
Cumberbatch said all necessary precautions are being taken at the hospital. “We have sanitised the area and distributed masks and personal protective gear to all hospital staff. Although there are no confirmed cases on the paediatric ward, all health professionals are being advised to wear protective gear to prevent the spread of the virus,” he said. As for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting it remains on schedule for the end of November, said Narace, since the vaccinations will be administered strategically to persons and workers in high risk categories.
Also yesterday there were unconfirmed reports that a student of Exchange Presbyterian Primary School had contracted the virus. Parents rushed to the school at Bryce Street, Couva to take their children home from as early as 12 noon when word spread that a student had symptoms of the virus. This latest incident comes after Grant Memorial Presbyterian School in San Fernando was closed for a week last month when three students contracted swine flu.