x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Flu testing in private hospitals to be banned

Officials react to concerns about hospitals testing healthy people for the H1N1 virus and often charging hefty fees for the service.

The federal Ministry of Health is expected this weekend to ban private hospitals from performing any tests for swine flu. Dr Amin al Amiri, the chief executive officer for medical practices and licensing at the ministry, said it would "issue the circular very soon telling the private hospitals not to do the tests, and what would happen if they did".

He did not elaborate on the penalties. As for private tests for H1N1, a source from the National Committee to Combat Swine Flu said some hospitals were carrying them out "to make money", adding: "This will be stopped." The National revealed this week that hospitals in the capital were charging up to Dh1,000 (US$270) for the tests, despite international health organisations saying testing for swine flu was unnecessary for most people.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) issued guidelines stating that people who had flu-like symptoms but no other complications and were otherwise healthy did not need to be treated with antiviral medicine or be tested for H1N1, the virus that causes swine flu. The Dubai Health Authority has banned private hospitals in the emirate from performing the tests, but hospitals under the jurisdiction of the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi and those in the northern Emirates were still able to conduct the tests for money.

A doctor at a private hospital in Dubai said that despite the supposed seriousness of the pandemic, performing the H1N1 tests for profit was not "doing any harm". "Many times the tests are negative, and it makes people feel better," he said. "Yes, private hospitals need to make a profit, but they are also doing a service. I am not sure it is right to stop them doing the test. The patients will decide whether they think it is right."

Meanwhile, experts speaking yesterday at a symposium on swine flu and pharmaceutical ethics, held at Ajman University of Science and Technology, said there was a good chance that any medication bought from an unregulated internet site would be counterfeit. Fake medicines may contain any number of compounds, including toxins, the symposium was told. There is no reason for people to take the risk, as the Government has stocked enough drugs to supply all health centres, said Prof Omer Ali Attef, dean of the university's College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.

"Any unsolicited e-mails containing deals or links to websites offering swine flu-related information packs or medicines should be treated with extreme caution," he said. Many people exhibiting flu-like symptoms have been reluctant to take Tamiflu because of the possible side-effects which include dizziness, nausea and headaches. One mother said she would not allow her 10-year-old daughter to take the antiviral unless she tested positive for the virus.

The WHO has previously said most healthy people will recover from the virus within seven days without the help of antivirals. It is not clear whether the health ministry will next be taking action against private hospitals that prescribe Tamiflu - at a cost of around Dh180 - to any patient with flu-like symptoms. Tamiflu is in such demand these days that it has overtaken the impotence drug Viagra as the most popular counterfeit medicine offered online, Prof Attef said. About 63 per cent of the Tamiflu sold over the internet is counterfeit, compared to about half of Viagra.

The legal vacuum in which the internet operates and the leniency of the judiciary were responsible for the huge amount of counterfeit drugs on the market, he said. munderwood@thenational.ae ykakande@thenational.ae