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Thursday, April 21, 2011

At-risk Canterbury families face stiff winter

At-risk Canterbury families face stiff winter

Last updated 05:00 21/04/2011
Overcrowding, cold housing and increased unemployment may be creating a "perfect storm" for Canterbury health services.

Cold weather and flu cases have officials scrambling to help Cantabrians stay warm and healthy this winter.

Christchurch Hospital will be operating with about 40 fewer beds for the next year, underlining the need to keep people out of hospital.

Canterbury District Health Board member Andrew Dickerson told a board meeting he had never seen Christchurch families suffering so much.

The impact of overcrowding, cold housing and increased unemployment was creating a "perfect storm" heading into winter, with the most vulnerable being hit hardest. "I have never seen hardship on the sort of scale we are seeing at the moment ... it could probably worsen," he said.

New Brighton Village Health Care GP Kim Burgess said doctors "have significant concerns about the potential risks through winter for people living in really substandard accommodation with holes in their walls and cracks and inadequate insulation in their homes".

Eastern suburbs residents were being told to expect power cuts while some homes had lost their chimneys. Recent flooding also raised concerns about people living in damp homes, which could aggravate respiratory problems, she said.

Partnership Health chief executive Jane Cartwright said GPs were being funded to keep in contact with vulnerable patients to catch any illnesses quickly. A scheme using family doctors to identify at-risk patients who needed heating would also be introduced, she said.

"There's a sense of nervousness, but people are working very hard to think about the whole range of things we need to make sure the system responds," she said. "We are trying to be proactive, to think about what will people need and be nimble on our feet, so if we start to see trends we can respond quite quickly."

Interim Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority chief executive John Ombler said agencies were working together to help people prepare for challenges of winter.

"We know the colder months can be challenging at the best of times, and for many people this winter will be much tougher and more testing with the damage so many homes have suffered," he said. "A critical focus for us is people staying safe and well through winter, particularly those who are already vulnerable, such as the elderly or infirm and young children."

Christchurch virologist Lance Jennings said this year's first flu cases had been confirmed.

Swine flu was still circulating and H3N2 was likely to become the dominant flu this season, one that had a severe effect on the elderly.

"The worst-case scenario is people succumbing to influenza and developing pneumonia and putting pressure on our hospital systems," he said.

Children sharing school sites and people crammed in small office spaces meant flu viruses could spread very quickly.

"It's the crowding that's going to have the greatest impact," he said.

People under stress could also be more susceptible to falling ill.

The board is providing free flu vaccinations to anyone under 18 this winter.

The vaccine is also free to those aged over 65, pregnant women and people with chronic health conditions such as diabetes and asthma.

Board general manager, planning and funding, Carolyn Gullery said the board was working on "a number of primary care-focused initiatives that will be sustainable over winter".

- The Press

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