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Infectious disease outbreak could close hospitals – public health official

Hospital closures to control the outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) in South Korea last year “could easily be replicated here,” a prominent public health official has warned the HSE.

Director of the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) Dr Darina O’Flanagan — who recently retired from her position — informed a senior HSE public health official that the outbreak in South Korea “resulted in closure of many large hospitals… That could easily be replicated here and we need access to urgent surveillance and guidance for control, including infection control. If our current WTEs are not maintained, there is an exceedingly high risk to the security of the health system.”

Dr O’Flanagan’s email was sent on 16 October 2015 to Dr Kevin Kelleher, HSE Assistant National Director, Health Protection. The email was obtained by the Medical Independent (MI) following a Freedom of Information request to the HPSC.

In an interview with MI in May 2015, Dr O’Flanagan noted that recent years had seen “severe cuts” within the HPSC and public health departments. “There will be more threats in the future — it’s inevitable,” she told MI.

In her email in October, Dr O’Flanagan referred to a discussion about the posts of clinical microbiologist and infection control nurse, which she described as “essential” to the HPSC and HSE, and key for developing guidance on emerging viral threats.

According to a HSE spokesperson, the posts referenced in the email were filled following an open competition by the HSE National Recruitment Service. However, one of the two consultant microbiologist positions (both half-time) in the HPSC is currently vacant.

In her email, Dr O’Flanagan noted how international experience with severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and more recently with MERS-CoV in South Korea, demonstrated how “dangerous pathogens can spread in overcrowded emergency departments”.

In February, MI reported that Dr John Lambert, Head of the National Isolation Unit at the Mater Hospital, Dublin, was proposing that a consultant position be established for emerging threats.

Last week, a spokesperson for Ireland East Hospital Group said “approval and appointment to post is nearing finalisation”.

Dr Lambert said this post would be crucial in preparing for emerging threats. The consultant will have a key role in planning for future disease threats and the design of an updated National Isolation Unit.

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