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Flu sweeps nation

The quiet children's emergency room at Bratislava's Kramáre Hospital last Wednesday morning gave little hint of the massive flu epidemic that has been sweeping through Slovakia since the beginning of February. But the night before had been a different story.
"It was the worst night so far,'' said Šarlota Srdošova, the retired nurse who works the information desk at the front door of the hospital. "There were children coming in all night running high fevers. Some had diarrhoea or sore throats, some had muscle cramps,'' she said, adding that she lost count of the visitors after about 20 had arrived.


Slovaks line up for drugs in the country's largest hospital, Kramáre in Bratislava. Doctors are asking pharmacies to restrict drug handouts.
photo: Ján Svrček

The quiet children's emergency room at Bratislava's Kramáre Hospital last Wednesday morning gave little hint of the massive flu epidemic that has been sweeping through Slovakia since the beginning of February. But the night before had been a different story.

"It was the worst night so far,'' said Šarlota Srdošova, the retired nurse who works the information desk at the front door of the hospital. "There were children coming in all night running high fevers. Some had diarrhoea or sore throats, some had muscle cramps,'' she said, adding that she lost count of the visitors after about 20 had arrived.

During the second week of February, the rate of flu and flu-related respiratory diseases skyrocketed across Slovakia, the Health Ministry reported. From February 7 through February 15, there were 223,085 flu cases nationwide, nearly 40% more than the week before. Of every 100,000 inhabitants, 4,156 were ill.

Given that the first case of flu only appeared on January 28, the rate of increase is astounding, said Peter Truska at the State Health Care Center in Bratislava. A graph prepared by the Health Ministry comparing cases against time showed the daily increase in illnesses as a nearly vertical line.

Bratislava region posted the highest increase during the second week of February, with 82 % more illnesses than the week before. Almost 3,000 children were ill, Truska said.

The most affected was the Nitra region in Slovakia with 5,333 cases per 100,000 inhabitants. Cases more than doubled in Trenčín region between the first and second weeks of the month. Not one of Slovakia's eight regions avoided an increased occurrence of the illness, the Health Ministry said.

Anna Bezečná of the State Health Center in Poprad said that in northern Slovakia, many schools were closed on doctors' orders for two or three days. In the Nitra, Prešov, and Žilina regions, all hospital visits were disallowed. In some Žilina districts, during the first week of the epidemic, all kindergartens were closed, as were 30% of the elementary schools.

The hardest-hit group was children aged 6-14, but adults over 60 also reported a rapidly increased flu rate. One 78-year old man in Kežmarok and a 60-year old resident of Košice were reported to have died from complications arising from the flu, the Health Ministry said.

In the average year, Slovakia reports 2 million cases of flu, a high rate for a country with a population of 5.34 million. Like clockwork, the worst time is usually the first two weeks of February, the Health Ministry told the daily newspaper Sme.

While the flu is now general across Europe, the incidence in Slovakia is particularly high in part becase the country has one of the lowest rates per capita of flu vaccination in Europe. Most people have to pay 200 Sk to be vaccinated, the Health Ministry said.

One major problem is making sure the massive amounts of subsidised medicines being issued by pharmacies across Slovakia will be covered by insurance. In some regions, doctors have drawn up a list of medicines most likely to be funded, and have instructed phamacists to only distribute off that list, regional doctors said.

In Žiar nad Hronom district in central Slovakia, district state doctor Ondrej Ulický has asked local doctors not to prescribe more medicine than absolutely necessary. His office has asked insurance companies to pay pharmacies back for flu medication within 14 days, because by February 1 they already owed pharmacy owners in the region 33 million Sk, he said.

The situation is dire in other districts as well. In Žilina, among the worst affected, Daniela Poličková said that her pharmacy will only sell medicine to those patients insured by companies that the pharmacy trusts will pay.

Gabriela Košeceká, from the State Health Care Institution in Žilina, said 5,105 out of every 100,000 people in the region are sick. The rate is still increasing among people from 15 to 59, she reported.

But most of Slovakia can soon breathe a bit easier, said flu expert Jozef Krak, Director of the State Health Care Insitution in Poprad: the worst of the epidemic will soon be over, he predicted.

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