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Pandemic planning vital, ongoing

27 June 2005

Pandemic planning vital, ongoing

NEW Zealand will continue to update and strengthen its pandemic preparedness plan, the Ministry of Health says

"We are acutely aware that we are of the need to plan and prepare for the possibility of a new strain of influenza arriving in the country," Director of Public Health Dr Mark Jacobs says.

"We have been planning for such a scenario since the late 1990s, and continue to do so. As we review our work so far we inevitably identify areas which need further strengthening, or where we have new information, then turn our focus to those. We will continue to do and review - I make no apologies for that. There is no such thing as a perfect or final plan."

Dr Jacobs said New Zealand was one of the first countries in the world to develop a pandemic preparedness plan. "Post-SARS it has been and continues to be updated and refined, and all district health boards have underpinned it with local plans in which primary healthcare is obviously a key component. "

"Many District Health Boards have held or are holding exercises to test these plans. Within the last two months, for example, three of the boards in the greater Auckland area co-operated in a one-day exercise as part of their preparation for a pandemic. Other boards, including Midland and Canterbury, have also tested their plans in exercises this year."

"In addition: we will have enough anti-virals to treat 21 per cent of the population by the end of the year. We have also started work, with a wide-ranging group of advisors, on how best to prioritise use of these drugs in the event of a pandemic. Because no-one yet knows the nature of the virus we will be dealing with, this work will not be able to be finalised until we have a pandemic. because they are likely to run out quickly when a pandemic strikes, we have financed and are about to make available to District Health Boards infection control supplies - personal protective equipment - sufficient to outfit frontline staff including primary healthcare personnel for a period of two-three months. we have invested money in enhancing surveillance activities which are already highly regarded internationally, as well as investing in a high containment laboratory to be developed at Wallaceville in addition to the work being done by District Health Boards, the Ministry ran a workshop on pandemic preparedness for family doctors and other primary care professionals at the Primary Focus conference, and will continue to work with primary care in strengthening our ability to respond to a pandemic
"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. The Pandemic Influenza Technical Advisory Group will be an important part of much of this work.

"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.

"SARS also showed us that we needed to build stronger and more effective communication channels. We have done this - we have tested those channels and they work. Most recently the outbreak of Influenza B amongst young New Zealanders necessitated using these channels and proved a successful test of our communication and response networks."

Dr Jacobs said it was important to recognise that any pandemic could be huge. "When the pandemic arrives - and it will be "when" rather than "if" - there is no doubting that it could be a major disaster. Worldwide we could be looking at millions of deaths, as well as huge social and economic impact."

"The World Health Organisation tells us that management of a pandemic is ultimately about management of scarcity - of people, of services, of supplies. The obvious parallel for us in New Zealand is with earthquakes - all the planning in the world will not prevent major disruption if you have an earthquake which measures 8 or over on the Richter scale.

"The Ministry is doing a lot of work in this area, but if the big one comes we all have to be prepared to endure some disruption, some scarcity and a degree of uncertainty, as well as the direct health impacts. Our ongoing planning is designed to ensure we can minimise that as much as possible."

ENDS

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