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Care Homes & Brushing Influenza under the Carpet

Last October it was reported in the Guardian that the total number of care homes had fallen from 18,068 in September 2010 to 16,614 in July 2016.

Meanwhile, in early 2017 there are reports of care homes closing around the country, two from East Yorkshire facing closure[1], as well as Devon[2] and Wales.[3] The former Lib Dem Care Minister Norman Lamb has launched a cross-party campaign to solve the crisis in health and social care [4], and in addition an urgent letter was sent to the government from Independent Age, including signatories from the Royal College of Nursing and Royal College of GPs, both expressing similar sentiments.

In and of itself this is concerning enough. Care homes closing will no doubt create a further burden on healthcare services. But not discussed are the number of care home influenza cases. Every week Public Health England produce a report of the cases of influenza for the previous week. Last week (up to January 19th) it can be seen that of 122 new acute respiratory outbreaks in the community (essentially flu), 94 were from care homes.[5] Whilst this figure can enlighten us very little as to why influenza loves a care home, it can be suggested that the collapse of so many of these institutions will do the infamous, and sometimes deadly illness, some favours. Firstly, infected but asymptomatic residents rushed to another care home, or back to family or concerned parties, will possibly infect other people. Secondly, there is a likelihood of these people entering the healthcare service and infecting others. Thirdly, the whole process of closing a care home will no doubt unsettle the virus, and due to its survival of 24 hours outside of the host, it will be able to transfer much more in its immediate environment.[6]

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To turn to those unfortunate enough to go through the upheaval of having a care home close – the combination of respiratory illness alongside the stress of the unfamiliar may be too much for them. Influenza may end up isolating or separating them from those who are close. Thus a spate of care home closures doesn’t only present a challenge for the healthcare and social care systems, but combined with a true epidemic or pandemic, could add to the devastation wrought. Jeremy Hunt congratulated the high uptake of flu vaccinations this year on Twitter.[7] But as any nurse, or other healthcare professional will tell you, stopping something from happening in the first place is better than hoping that pharmaceuticals and a robust immune system will fight it off. If anything the Health Secretary’s heartfelt messages and “thank yous” during his tenure attempt to mask his administration’s poor regard for long term health and social care planning. Influenza is an old and familiar opponent, and hard to stop. But by letting services waste away, the government endangers the health of nurses and other healthcare professionals.

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[1]    http://www.hulldailymail.co.uk/call-for-action-to-stop-more-sudden-closures-of-east-yorkshire-care-home/story-30031066-detail/story.html
[2]    http://www.exeterexpressandecho.co.uk/christmas-woe-for-staff-and-residents-as-two-exeter-care-homes-face-closure/story-30001369-detail/story.html
[3]    http://www.dailypost.co.uk/news/north-wales-news/colwyn-bay-care-home-shut-12017529
[4]    http://www.normanlamb.org.uk/norman_lamb_launches_cross_party_nhs_and_care_campaign
[5]    https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/weekly-national-flu-reports
[6]    http://www.nhs.uk/chq/pages/how-long-do-bacteria-and-viruses-live-outside-the-body.aspx
[7]    https://twitter.com/Jeremy_Hunt/status/823934903591063552