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Papers reveal NZ unprepared for bird flu pandemic

27 June 2005

Papers reveal NZ unprepared for bird flu pandemic

New Zealand is unprepared for a possible bird flu pandemic, papers obtained under the Official Information Act reveal, Green Health spokesperson Sue Kedgley says.

"With a team of international experts in Vietnam warning that the virus could be mutating into form that could trigger a human pandemic, our lack of preparedness leaves us vulnerable," Ms Kedgley said.

"We need to follow Australia and Europe by pulling out all the stops to prepare our country for a bird flu outbreak.

"We are lagging way behind Australia, which has published a detailed emergency plan on how to ensure essential services are maintained during a pandemic and health professionals can be kept safe. Australia has worked out plans to designate influenza hospitals and fever clinics and develop registers of healthcare and emergency workers receiving anti-virals and educational resources for all GPs.

"We need similarly detailed plans here in New Zealand, which the public can have confidence in.

"The European Union has also set up a 24 hour monitoring system, with laboratories across Europe able to analyse flu virus strains, but we have no similar system in place. Indeed, while Europe's surveillance systems are being strengthened with the imminent threat of bird flu, funding for human health surveillance has continued to decline in New Zealand.

The documents obtained by Ms Kedgley under the Official Information Act warn that the capacity of the health sector to respond would be "quickly overwhelmed" during a pandemic.

The papers reveal New Zealand has:

- Insufficient laboratory surveillance to provide an early warning system or rapidly detect the pandemic strain in New Zealand;
- Low levels of training for health professionals;
- Inadequate levels of infection control to provide a safe environment for patients seeking care or staff providing it;
- Insufficient high containment laboratory facilities to test safely for the pandemic strain;
- Lack of trained and equipped ambulance offices;
- Lack of emergency communication capability.

"They say there has been very little planning in DHBs and the primary health sector generally for a pandemic and that few DHBs devote sufficient resource to emergency planning. Given that doctors, nurses and the primary health sector generally would be at the frontline for treating people in any pandemic, this is a real concern.

"While the first stocks of new anti-viral drugs have arrived and more are on order, we only have enough to treat 1.7 percent of the population. And the original 20.000 anti-viral treatments in stockpile passed their expiry date in January this year.

"How are we going to ration a limited supply of anti-viral medication? Who would be given priority? And where are our plans for isolating, treating and transporting large numbers of highly infectious people, or coping with overcrowded and understaffed hospitals?

"The papers warn that 'critical clinical supplies' of protective masks, gowns and intravenous fluids, would be quickly exhausted in a pandemic and difficult to replace.

"While the Government has recently allocated $6 million to District Health Boards to increase their supplies of personal protective equipment, it has budgeted for an 8-12 week pandemic, when it could be much longer," Ms Kedgley said.

ENDS

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