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Pandemic awareness and planning vital ongoing work

11 March 2005
Pandemic awareness and planning vital ongoing work

NEW research suggesting thousands of New Zealanders could die in an influenza pandemic reinforces just how crucial it is to take the illness seriously and plan accordingly, the Ministry of Health says.

In a paper published in the latest NZ Medical Journalresearchers Nick Wilson, Osman Mansoor and Michael Baker suggest a flu pandemic could see up to 3700 New Zealanders die, with as many as 20,000 requiring hospital care and just over 1 million requiring a consultation with a health professional. They arrived at their figures by using an American model, applied to Statistics New Zealand and census data.

Director-General of Health Dr Karen Poutasi said the figures were sobering, but no surprise to the Ministry which had long been concerned about another influenza pandemic.

"Too often we use the word 'flu' to describe something just a little worse than the common cold - more a nuisance than a threat. However each year normal seasonal flu kills some 90 New Zealanders. For some time we have been worried about the possibility of a flu pandemic caused by a more virulent strain," Dr Poutasi said.

"Nobody can be sure where or when it will emerge, but the ongoing H5N1 bird flu outbreaks in Southeast Asia have the experts concerned. We need to act prudently and responsibly in continuing to prepare."

Dr Poutasi said it was important to strike a balance between making people aware of the seriousness of influenza, and preventing them being unduly frightened.

"There's no doubting that a pandemic would be a major disaster. Worldwide we could be looking at tens of millions of deaths, as well as huge social and economic impact."

"While there is a lot of work going on internationally to develop a vaccine against H5N1 our best defence locally is planning and preparedness to help us endure a pandemic as best we can."

"In New Zealand we first developed our national pandemic plan in 2002. Since then we updated and refined the national plan and all district health boards have underpinned it with local plans. Given that the World Health Organization just last month recommended that all countries have a national plan we think our efforts in this area give us a good foundation."

Dr Poutasi said it was worth noting that the model which the research team used specifically excluded "effective public health interventions" when estimating the effects an influenza pandemic could have on New Zealanders.

"We believe we do have some effective interventions, and are constantly looking at how we can have more."

"We have just announced an order for a stockpile of antivirals. We are continually updating and refining our plans to look at, for example, ways of assessing and treating sick people with the least possible exposure to others, developing protocols for quarantine and isolation and many other strategies which could lessen the impact of a pandemic. We also have the recent experience of SARS which saw a lot of work with other agencies to implement options for border control - which could help reduce the chances of spreading the disease.

Dr Poutasi said the Ministry of Health commissioned today's research as part of its ongoing work in preparing for an influenza pandemic.


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