Public health doctors begin strike today


Almost 300 public health doctors who manage the control of infectious diseases such as SARS, measles, meningitis and salmonella will begin a strike today over pay and conditions.

The public health doctors are responsible for controlling infectious outbreaks, and for tracing persons who may have been in contact with sufferers. They also organise preventative medicines and vaccination programmes.

The dispute has its origins in 1994, when new public health structures were put in place. The Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) claims that the Department of Health and the Health Services Employers Agency (HSEA) failed to implement a number of recommendations aimed at restructuring the pay and responsibilities of public health doctors.

The doctors have also been providing an out-of-hours service without pay, and want to be rostered around the clock to deal with threats to public health.

The HSEA claims the IMO has not exhausted all avenues for potential resolution.

The doctors range from area and senior area medical officers to directors of community care. At a more senior level, specialists in public health and directors of public health advise health boards. They also work in the National Disease Surveillance Centre (NDSC) and in university posts.

The IMO strike committee has said that it would provide emergency cover where "there is a real and immediate risk to human life".

The strike comes at a time when the pneumonia-like disease Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) is claiming lives. The war in Iraq has also raised fears of bioterrorist attacks.

In the State, one probable case of SARS has been recorded. The man, who was admitted to Mayo General Hospital, Castlebar, after returning from Hong Kong, has since fully recovered and left hospital.

Other suspected cases have now been ruled out.

A Department of Health spokeswoman said that the case of a Chinese woman admitted to Tallaght Hospital had been "stood down".

Two other suspected cases in Dublin hospitals and another in Portlaoise have also been ruled out.

However, worldwide the disease continues to spread. Yesterday the Hong Kong government said five more people had died and a further 42 had been infected with the flu-like virus.