Six people have died during an influenza outbreak at a nursing home in Tasmania’s northwest, the state’s public health department has confirmed.
In a statement, director of public health Mark Veitch said it “was a sad event for the families affected, but can occur among frail people during an influenza season”.
Those who died were all residents at the Strathdevon aged care facility in Latrobe, near Devonport.
The 37-room home is run by Uniting Agewell, an organisation of the Australian United Church.
The deaths came after it was confirmed seven elderly residents at St John’s Retirement Village in Wangaratta in Victoria died during an influenza outbreak during the past two weeks.
On Friday night, a spokeswoman from Uniting Agewell confirmed there was “an influenza A outbreak at Strathdevon from August 9 to 30, which was reported to [the department of] public health and managed according to state health department infection control guidelines”.
The company would not confirm how many people had died.
Dr Veitch said elderly people, especially those who had chronic medical conditions, were susceptible to the virus.
“For this reason, public health services wrote to all nursing homes in Tasmania earlier this year reminding them to prepare for the influenza season,” he said.
Chief executive of Tasmania’s Council on Ageing Sue Leitch said although the outbreak itself was not surprising in the middle of the flu season, the outcome was concerning.
“It’s a predictable type of event that could be avoided or minimised if people [are] proactive,” she said.
Ms Leitch said those in contact with elderly people should ensure they take preventative measures against influenza.
“It is a relatively simple thing to try and minimise, by vaccination and hand hygiene,” she said.
Concern over decreasing flu vaccination rates
Ms Leitch said it was worrying that flu vaccination rates among adults were decreasing.
“If we have less people vaccinated in the community then flus are more likely to spread more rapidly,” she said, adding it was especially important that those working with older people were vaccinated.
“I think they certainly should be encouraged very firmly by organisations that either employ them or have them as volunteers,” she said.
“You can get be vaccinated by a nurse, you can be vaccinated by a doctor, you can be vaccinated at your local pharmacy, it’s not as if it’s something that’s difficult to achieve these days.”
Dr Veitch said there had been more than 1,500 confirmed influenza cases in Tasmania so far this year.
“The influenza season in Tasmania this year has been moderately severe,” he said.
“Tasmanians are reminded to stay away from schools, work and health and aged care facilities if they are unwell.”
More can be done, researcher says
Robert Booy from the University of Sydney has researched the handling of flu outbreaks by Australian aged care facilities.
He told ABC’s AM program he believed nursing and retirement homes could do more to prevent and control outbreaks of the virus.
“Australian nursing homes are under pressure,” he said.
“They have limited numbers of registered nurses on call in any one shift, sometime it’s only one and that makes it very hard for a registered nurse to go around and recognise the sometimes subtle symptoms of flu.”