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Call for NZ to prepare for influenza pandemic

Call for New Zealand to prepare for influenza pandemic

New Zealand must ensure it has access to antiviral drugs in preparation for the emergence of a novel influenza strain, according to the Canterbury Health Laboratories clinical virologist Lance Jennings.

Dr Jennings told the Public Health Association Conference in Christchurch today that countries like New Zealand which do not produce vaccines could face difficulties in an influenza pandemic and this country should have a stockpile available as the first line of defense.

The 1997 Hong Kong Chicken Flu outbreak is an example of how avian influenza viruses can infect people, with associated high death rates, according to Dr Jennings.

"Avian influenza strains appear to be getting more virulent and transmission between avian species and humans has been a major trend with these viruses since 1997."

The World Health Organisation and virologists are concerned about the current Asian influenza outbreak and the possible emergence of a novel influenza strain, Dr Jennings said. The Hong Kong outbreak, as well as the recent SARS epidemic, provided a pandemic warning for New Zealand, as well as the rest of the world. However he warned an influenza pandemic caused by an avian influenza strain would be far more devastating than SARS.

"Influenza is highly contagious at an early stage of the disease, thus containment of an influenza pandemic would be far more difficult than containment of SARS which is infectious as a later stage."

Dr Jennings said ten to twenty percent of New Zealanders are already affected each year by influenza, with many hospitalizations and some deaths, and in the past 100 years we have had three pandemics.

He said New Zealand has an influenza pandemic action plan which has been tested in "Exercise Virex" and one of the best influenza surveillance systems in the world. However Dr Jennings warned this country could not afford to rest on its laurels and it was important that government realized the potential seriousness of another influenza pandemic and supported national and global efforts of preparedness.

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