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Hotline overdiagnosing flu but missing serious illness

By Christian Duffin

The swine flu hotline is wrongly categorising huge numbers of patients as ‘possible swine flu' cases while failing to spot some have life-threatening illnesses, say researchers.

Their study, presented at last week's Infection 2009 conference in Birmingham, casts doubt on the robustness of the Government's National Pandemic Flu Service and the accuracy of the algorithm it uses.

A team at Royal Liverpool University Hospital examined 30 patients with ‘possible swine flu' who had been told to go there after phoning the hotline – but found that only three actually had the virus. One patient had malaria, three had meningitis and another tuberculous pericarditis. None had previously been diagnosed.

About half the total patient sample had taken Tamiflu.

Study leader Dr Mike Beadsworth, a medical microbiologist at the Royal Liverpool, said hotline call handlers needed to be better trained and the algorithm reviewed, as it was designed for epidemics involving hundreds of thousands of people and was wrongly identifying too many cases.

He said: ‘Some of the patients could have died because they had conditions such as malaria. Colleagues from other hospitals have seen the same thing. The Government should not scrap the hotline because we'd have thousands of people going to GP surgeries, but it needs to reassess the algorithm.'

Patients are diagnosed with swine flu over the phone

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