Costa Rican health officials alarmed at spike in respiratory illnesses

February 24, 2015

Costa Rica’s Health Ministry last week reported that 40 people – 23 women and 17 men – have died this year from complications linked to respiratory viruses.

Henry Wasserman, from the ministry’s Health Vigilance Department, said that 20 patients were diagnosed with the H1N1 influenza virus, 10 tested positive for the adenovirus, and three had H3N2 influenza.

“Not all of the deaths occurred directly because of the viruses, but rather in some cases from complications related to the viruses,” Wasserman said. 

Across the country, the Health Ministry reported that 460 people had been diagnosed with respiratory viruses, including 256 patients with respiratory syncytial virus and 168 with adenovirus.

“The spread of respiratory diseases usually increases during the rainy season [from May-November], but it also mainly occurs because of people’s bad health habits,” said Roberto Castro, director of the Health Ministry’s epidemiological crisis unit.

Earlier this year the Social Security System, or Caja, acquired 320,000 doses of flu vaccines for adults and 22,000 doses for children, which will be available in public health facilities in coming days. Private pharmacies also are offering the vaccine for the seasonal flu in several locations across the country.

The National Children’s Hospital in San José on Tuesday declared a state of emergency as beds are at nearly full capacity due to the spread of respiratory viruses.

Hospital Director Orlando Urroz on Tuesday morning reported that 315 of the hospital’s 324 beds currently are occupied, and that “50 percent of them [patients] are affected by respiratory viruses.”

Children’s Hospital authorities will meet with experts from the National Emergency Commission and directors of all public hospitals to establish measures to continue providing care to children.

Because of the spike in cases the hospital also moved up its annual vaccination campaign for 2014, planned to launch in January. That campaign now will take place in November of this year. The Pan-American Health Organization has donated 36,000 additional doses of flu vaccines for children. 

Urroz also urged parents to take their children to the nearest hospital “as soon as symptoms of any respiratory illness appear,” particularly children over 6 months with risk factors such as asthma or chronic diseases of the immune system.

The Health Ministry’s director of health monitoring, María Ethel Trejos, also called on Costa Ricans to take appropriate preventive steps to avoid illness, such as washing hands and using disposable tissues, because “Caja facilities are overcrowded with dengue patients.”

Ministry officials also are advising employers to send sick employees home to prevent viruses from spreading. Officials also plan on sending a similar request to schools across the country. 

Respiratory illness is the third leading cause of death in Costa Rica, after cardiovascular disease and cancer, according to Health Ministry data.

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