By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — A worsening outbreak of flu and serious respiratory illnesses is hitting essential services and causing major problems for doctors and hospitals.
Businesses and industry are reporting huge numbers of workers out ill, postal services are being delayed by sickness rates of up to 40 percent, and public transport is being hit by the high number of staff reporting in sick.
"The full statistical analysis will have to wait for a few days, but based on what we are hearing, it looks now as if we are on the threshold of an epidemic," said Dr. Cormac MacNamara of the Irish Medical Organization.
Doctors report their surgeries are at their busiest in more than 10 years as people turn up with respiratory complaints and viral infections.
Emergency rooms have also been inundated. Hospitals have made pleas for extra nurses — even if they can only work for a few hours — and some have canceled regular admissions to free up beds to deal with the crisis.
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The Blood Transfusion Services Board is operating emergency mobile clinics in an effort to boost dwindling blood stocks as the widespread illness has hit donation levels.
Undertakers are also reporting a huge increase in business, with many families in the Dublin area forced to wait for up to five days to bury their relatives because of a backlog.
"Since mid-December, the increase in demand has been unprecedented since 1989, when we had a very bad smog," said Dublin undertaker David Fanagan.
"The demand for services have been quite incredible. It has gone up by anything from 25 to 30 percent in the greater Dublin area."
Medical experts believe the numbers seeking treatment from doctors is only the tip of the iceberg. Most people realize that doctors can do little beyond prescribing paracetamol or aspirin to reduce fevers and advising people to take to their beds, keep warm and drink plenty of fluids.
The outbreak is most serious for those already suffering from chest complaints or the very old, who are at risk from secondary infections or complications.
A row between the Department of Health and doctors about payment for vaccination last autumn hit the anti-flu immunization campaign. There are fears that this may result in the flu having a greater impact on those at highest risk.
The Department of Health has confirmed a surge in demand for treatment but has not echoed warnings by medical advisers in Britain that the flu situation there has already reached epidemic proportions.