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Preparedness for influenza pandemic well advanced

Preparedness for influenza pandemic well advanced

NEW ZEALAND's preparedness for the possibility of a 'flu pandemic has been further enhanced with an agreement between the Ministry of Health and a major pharmaceutical company for a supply of anti-virals.

Director-General of Health Dr Karen Poutasi said the Ministry of Health had now ordered hundreds of thousands of doses of the Roche product known as Tamiflu, to add to the supply it bought last year.

"It means we will have a drug which helps in the treatment of influenza. People who take Tamiflu (oseltamivir) as soon as they start to develop symptoms have been shown to have less severe illness, of shorter duration and may be less likely to infect others as they shed less of the virus," Dr Poutasi said.

"This purchase is in line with international recommendations, and will put us on the same sort of footing as Australia and well ahead of many other countries," Dr Poutasi said today.

"We are buying more than 800,000 doses - sufficient to cover approxinately 20 per cent of the population."

"I am delighted with the successful outcome of these negotiations - especially as publicity about an international conference being held in Vietnam right now is heightening awareness of the possibility of a pandemic arising from the current outbreak of avian influenza in some Asian countries."

"It is important to note, however, that there has been no sudden change in the international situation. Particularly pertinent is the fact that the World Health Organisation has not recorded any human deaths from avian influenza since February 9 this year."

The WHO has confirmed 10 human cases of H5N1 - largely traced to contact with sick birds - since 30 December 2004 in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. Experts have repeatedly warned that that the H5N1 bird flu virus could become far deadlier still if it mutates into a form that can be easily transmitted between humans, sparking a global pandemic that could kill millions.

They believe such a mutation could arise if someone with influenza is exposed to infected birds, providing the opportunity for the human virus and H5N1 to "reassort" - combine into a new virus.

"The Vietnam conference has seen the World Health Organisation again underline the need to prepare for such a possibility," Dr Poutasi said. "Foremost among their recommendations has been that for a pandemic preparedness plan. On that front we are well-ahead."

She said New Zealand had been preparing for an influenza pandemic for some years. "We were amongst the first countries in the world to have a national pandemic plan (2002) which we tested in a paper exercise the following year. Since then we have reworked and refined it even further, including benchmarking it against the Australian national plan."

Dr Poutasi said the Ministry of Health already held a supply of antivirals, the purchase of which had been prompted by the emergence last year of the current avian influenza outbreak.

The first batch of the new order is scheduled for delivery in May, with the bulk of it due mid-winter.

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