23 March 2003
A week after New Zealand's response to the threat of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome began, the World Health Organisation has announced a test may soon be available for the serious virus, the Ministry of Health says.
"International scientists have devised a basic test for the virus that causes SARS. A rapid and reliable diagnostic test is needed to assist clinicians for rapid confirmation of genuine cases and this is a significant step forward," Director of Public Health Dr Colin Tukuitonga said today.
Dr Tukuitonga said if required New Zealand will work with WHO to establish testing faclities in this country.
Latest reports from WHO say there have been 386 suspected or probable cases of SARS, identified in a variety of countries. There have been 11 deaths to date.
Hong Kong and Hanoi in Vietnam, continue to be the worst affected areas. Meanwhile a WHO team of experts is en route to China to investigate whether an outbreak of a SARS-like illness may be linked to the current SARS outbreak.
Dr Tukuitonga said according to WHO, the virus has been contained outside Asia, however New Zealand was maintaining its vigilence and still treating SARS as a very serious threat.
"In New Zealand, we still have no confirmed cases so we can be reasonably confident the virus has not entered this country. However, we are maintaining ongoing border surveillance and health care workers will manage any suspected cases with good infection control procedures ."
Dr Tukuitonga said the Ministry of Health has a national public health emergency plan to deal with an emerging issue such as SARS. The plan sets out roles and responsibilites of various groups and individuals, including DHBs, and involves continually monitoring information the Ministry receives.
The Ministry activated the plan last Monday and will continue to follow it as the situation necessitates.
To date the Ministry has: disseminated information to key agencies, District Health Boards, emergency deparments and infection control committees. disseminated diagnostic guidelines to GPs and other health care workers set up a 24-hour telephone line and a website for members of the public seeking advice on travel and other issues related to SARS. The number of the telephone line is 0800 800 80. The website address is www.moh.govt.nz/sars distributed SARS information pamphlets to airlines and information posters to airports
At this stage, travel advice for anyone contemplating an overseas trip remains the same. Persons currently contemplating non-essential travel to the worst-affected areas may wish to carefully consider their plans, however there are no official travel restrictions at this stage.
Dr Tukuitonga said the results of last year's influenza pandemic emergency planning exercise known as Exercise Virex had proved to be extremely useful in the past week.
"The action plan that came out of Exercise Virex has been a valuable guideline for responding to SARS and we have had very good systems in place."
He said the National Pandemic Planning Committee, which has been co-ordinating the New Zealand resonse to SARS and reports to the Ministry of Health will meet again tomorrow to review the situation and advise on whether further action is required.
For more information contact: Hayley Brock Media Advisor Ministry of Health (04) 495 4375 021 512 898 www.moh.govt.nz/sars
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