The Irish Health Service Executive (HSE) begins the first phase of its swine flu vaccination campaign today by offering the H1N1 vaccine to between 400,000 and 500,000 patients across the 26 Counties.
The HSE said that the vaccine will be available through 2,300 family doctors and at 45 special clinics in areas where doctors are not participating in the vaccination campaign.
“This is now a national public health emergency,” said the Department of Health’s chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan.
Nurses representatives said the threat of industrial action would not block the vaccination programme.
More than 100,000 people in the 26 Counties are estimated to have contracted the swine flu virus at this stage. At this point, it is estimated that about 3 per cent of the population in Ireland have been infected.
The vaccine is currently only being offered to “at-risk” patients throughout the 26 Counties, medical professionals and high-ranking government officials.
Up to one in four of the population could contract the disease, said the chief medical officer.
“While this figure may not turn out to be this high, there will certainly be further increases in hospitalisations and deaths in the coming weeks and months,” he added.
There have been 20 deaths from swine flu in Ireland so far, ten in the 26 Counties and the same number north of the border.
Last month, two pupils attending Foyleview special school in Derry passed away within days of each other after contracting swine flu.
Children with special needs are now being treated as priority cases in the swine flu vaccination programme taking place across the Six Counties.
Sinn Fein Health spokesperson Caoimhghin O Caolain TD has warned that health cuts in the South have weakened the public health system and will make it far more difficult to cope.
“Health cutbacks pose a grave danger to public health, especially in the face of the swine flu pandemic which is predicted to worsen over the winter,” he said. “These cuts must be reversed.”
26-County Minister for Health Mary Harney today appealed to doctors and nurses not to let their grievances with the Dublin government get in the way of the battle against swine flu.
“I think everybody who works in healthcare, particularly nurses and doctors, take their responsibility to their patients seriously,” said Minister Harney today.
“I would appeal, particularly in the context of the swine flu, not to allow that to be jeopardised by any industrial relations difficulties - or any difficulty between the Government and its employees”.
“If we’re all responsible and work together, we will come through this. There is light at the end of the tunnel.”
Nurses are due to participate in a pre-emptive one-day strike by public service workers on November 24th in what many expect to be the first in a long winter of strike actions and protests.
Liam Doran of the nurses’ union, the INO, confirmed that industrial action would not hinder the vaccination programme, which will take months to complete.
“Clinics that have been scheduled will be manned and go ahead as normal”, he said.
“The health services unions have collectively signed up to a protocol where, in a pandemic situation... the first and only priority is the delivery of the population health measures.”