Portugal’s struggling national health service – cut to the bone by austerity – is now on life support. Unless you are the prime minister, news according to the nation’s press is that you will not be seen promptly in a medical emergency.
While Passos Coelho was able to bunny-hop a massive waiting room just before Christmas (when he took his stepdaughter into Amadora-Sintra’s packed A&E), others have not been so lucky.
The most high-profile of the two men who died waiting to see a doctor over the festive season was 57-year-old Roberto Pereira. His story is all the more shocking for the fact that his distraught family were “thanked” by one of the doctors who attended him in his final moments.
The doctor thanked Pereira’s sister Irene after she said the family was going to file a complaint over the way her brother had been denied attention. “The doctor thanked me, saying there were too few doctors for so many people,” the stunned woman told SIC TV news.
As she went on to affirm: “My brother died because he was not helped in time.” Pereira had been sitting in the “chaotic” waiting room of Santa Maria da Feira’s Hospital de S. Sebastião for over five hours.
Described as a man with a number of health problems, he went into the A&E department already in distress and was given a “yellow” triage band, in accordance with the Manchester triage system operating in many of Portugal’s hospitals.
Irene Pereira became agitated when she saw her brother getting worse, so she went to ask the doctors to review his triage status.
“The doctor told me he had been given a yellow wristband,” she told TV reporters. “I said: “But he needs a red one.” That is when the doctor apparently told her that red was “only for people who had their heads broken”.
As the story aired on national television, it was clearly one that could only happen to a member of “Joe Public” – but as Joe Public makes up a huge part of this country, Pereira’s nephew vowed the family will be taking their complaint to the highest level “to get justice for anyone else who turns up in a casualty department today, tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow”.
“We don’t want money, we are not doing this for money. We are asking for one thing: justice,” he said.
News that the hospital has now opened an inquiry into the incident has done nothing to assuage the family whose instant plan is to lodge a “queixa crime” (criminal allegation).
Meantime, the rupture that has threatened the nation’s hospitals through the festive season looks set to burst with the news that the country faces a major flu epidemic that is expected to peak mid-January.
Hong Kong flu virus renders 2015’s vaccine ineffective
The reason this year’s flu vaccine is “not effective” has been explained by the scientific coordinator for the national programme of infectious respiratory diseases.
Talking over the weekend, Filipe Froes said 2015’s vaccine “began being produced on an international level in February of 2014” – but the “particularly aggressive” strain of virus now doing the rounds “only began circulating the following month”.
H3N2 is thus well on the way to becoming a full-blown epidemic.
“Normally, vaccines offer a level of protection of between 60% and 70%,” explained Froes. “This year immunity will be more at the level of 40%-50%.”
And while the virus is already ““very active in the United States and northern Europe”, in Portugal it is “only just beginning”.
“We’re expecting epidemic activity to start within two weeks,” he warned.
What Froes failed to say was that H3N2 was the same virus behind the Hong Kong flu pandemic of 1968-69 which killed over a million people worldwide. Thus Portugal is riding the crest of a deadly wave that could crash at any moment with drastic consequences given the parlous state of the country’s casualty departments.
By NATASHA DONN [email protected]
“Fighting fit and ready for anything”
This is the good news. While chaos is the state of play in the A&E departments of countless hospitals throughout Portugal, the situation in the Algarve is very different.
“We are prepared,” said hospital director Pedro Nunes who told us he is on 24-hour call for any kind of administrative emergency.
“Our system has been organised with military spirit,” he told us from Faro Hospital. “We are geared for emergencies, which means we can move people round, free up beds and generally ensure people who need to be admitted are admitted.
“On New Year’s Eve for instance, when we were aware there would be more demand in Albufeira, we moved extra medical staff there.
“In fact, I think Faro was the only hospital in the country where there wasn’t one patient lying waiting to be seen in a corridor over the entire festive holidays.
“We are also prepared for the extra demands that may come in due to the flu virus”, he added. “We have 20 beds in Faro currently closed which we can open up the minute we need them.
“Of course it’s busier at this time of year, but everything is working perfectly normally for this time of year.”
The Algarve’s situation has been helped by the fact that it operates a completely different system to those used elsewhere.
“We don’t have the same authority/hierarchy bureaucracy,” explained Nunes.