Hospitals with scabies and legionella as PM laments health service’s “winter of discontent”

Fresh from the world’s ‘second worst legionella outbreak of all time”, Portugal is back in the hotseat – not just with a new legionella scare, but an outbreak of scabies among hospital workers. In fact, it has been a “winter of discontent” for a health service that is ever-more under fire. From the Algarve to the top of the country, horror stories have been falling over each other since temperatures started to plummet.

Deaths of patients waiting to be seen in casualty departments filled column inches through January – along with the bleak news that this year’s flu virus is virtually unstoppable as the winter vaccine simply wasn’t up to speed.

With almost 3,000 more deaths than initially expected already this year (see:, Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho has gone on record “lamenting” the “very difficult winter” and the “tragic moments” within the health service that should have been “better evaluated”.

For anyone who lost a loved one who died after waiting hours to be seen by over-worked hospital staff, these words will simply be too little and far too late.

Passos Coelho put a positive spin on his admission of systemic failings, saying that while Portugal’s health service still did not have all the doctors it needs, it could not be compared to the situation “three years ago or indeed 30 years ago”. There was no comparison, he said, “thanks to the extraordinary adventure of the European project”.

Passos Coelho may well have been referring to the level of cancer care being afforded his wife at Lisbon’s IPO (Portuguese Oncology Institute), but elsewhere in the country, protests are much more the order of the day – albeit from people far less privileged.

In Portimão over the weekend, scores of locals turned up in force for a demo denouncing the lack of basic amenities at the hospital built at the turn of the century and designed to bring new hope to a region previously ‘deprived’ of any up-to-date central care.

“They don’t seem to have anything!” a heated Maria Etelvina told reporters. “They never had much, but things have simply got worse,” she said, claiming expectant mothers have to “bring everything with them”, from bandages to towels, and nappies to disinfectants.

“The minister of health needs to get down here,” she said. “He should come to be ill here and see what it’s like.”

“We’re being sacrificed, from the moment where we make consultations,” Manuel Brás reinforced feelings among the crowd. “And the response from the government is always the same. ‘Everything is fine’…”

Stressing that they want to see services replaced to the levels they were three years ago, protesters told television reporters they would be back if their calls fell on deaf ears.

Hospital pays €4,480 for scabies treatments

Meantime, the kind of health scare you would expect in a third world country has reared its ugly head in Vila Real, in the north of Portugal.

Sarcoptes scabiei (Scabies) is described as “being widespread in densely populated areas with limited access to medical care”. Africa, India and Southeast Asia are locations normally associated with the microscopic parasite, but now it has been running rampant in a Portuguese hospital.

Already over 60 staff have been affected, and the hospital administration is alleged to have had to spend €4,480 in lotions “because the hospital pharmacy did not have the conditions to make up its own creams in sufficient time”.

According to newspaper reports earlier this week, this bumped-up costs tenfold. “What should have cost €7 to make in-house has ended up costing the health service €70 due to the requirement to buy elsewhere”.

For now, 57 health professionals – 44 nurses and 20 operational assistants – are receiving treatment, and at least one has had to take sick leave.

The contagion apparently began with a nonagenarian patient who arrived towards the end of January from an old people’s home in Sabrosa.

Locals living near the hospital have begun talking of fears that the contagion could spread, given that so many are connected through their work with the hospital.

Hospital water infected by legionella

But while scabies is a novelty for this winter, legionella certainly is not.

The scores of families affected by the outbreak in Vila Franca de Xira last November – which killed 13 and contaminated more than 350 – are putting together a legal case that could be ready for submission by the end of this month.

Many are still struggling with the after-effects of the disease which originated in the cooling towers of a factory run by Adubos de Portugal.

Now, the potentially-deadly bacteria has been found in the water of Bragança Hospital. Confirmation came last Friday, with hospital authorities immediately activating “shock treatment” to avoid propagation.

As of Monday, no infections among patients had been reported.

The situation is being “accompanied by public health authorities” – particularly as this is the second time in three years that the hospital has been affected by legionella.

“Naturally, we will be alert over the next few days,” said a source, guaranteeing that the hospital “always” carries out routine operations to ensure the safety of water supplies.

But while Passos Coelho marvelled at the changes wrought by the “extraordinary adventure of the European model”, nurses and firemen were called to a stable near Palmela last week to rescue an elderly woman – believed to be 102 – who had been living among “horses, chickens, dogs and manure”.

Domingas Ferreira told her rescuers that only days before she had wished for death, so desperate was her plight.

Now being treated in Outão hospital one can only hope she will be discharged fully returned to health and dignity.

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