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New Zealand strengthens SARS readiness

New Zealand strengthens SARS readiness

NEW ZEALAND has stepped up its ability to deal with the threat posed by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) as health authorities prepare to deal with its arrival in this country, the Ministry of Health says.

"Most significantly we now have enhanced powers to examine and isolate people suspected of having or found to have SARS," Director of Public Health Dr Colin Tukuitonga says.

"Under new powers conferred by Cabinet today SARS is now a notifiable disease. That means that Medical Officers of Health are entitled to examine and isolate people with SARS, to isolate them if necessary and, in conjunction with the Director-General, to prevent gatherings which could see the virus spread. "

Dr Tukuitonga said health officials would not use their powers lightly.

"I believe that most New Zealanders are sufficiently community-minded and responsible to agree voluntarily to health professionals taking the necessary steps. I think most of us who keep abreast of the news know what a potentially devastating illness this can be. The latest figures we have from the World Health Organisation are of 1550 cases and 54 people dead from SARS.

"The numbers affected and the spread and ferocity of SARS in Asia has also prompted us to strengthen our travel advice to New Zealanders " Dr Tukuitonga said.

"We are now recommending against anyone travelling in China, to Hong Kong, to Singapore, to Taiwan and to Hanoi City in Vietnam."

"At the same time we are reiterating our advice to incoming travellers, to the airlines which carry them and to border control authorities about the need to be alert to SARS. Public Health Units are also on standby for airports and airlines to call on as necessary.

"In this context there has been a lot of concern about people returning from the Hong Kong Sevens, given that Hong Kong is one of the worse-affected countries. Those returning will be receiving the same advice and assessment for signs of ill-health as other travellers. Contrary to some speculation, however, they will not be undergoing specific health checks.

"Through all of this we have been very aware of the fine line between alertness and alarm. Our intention has always been to ensure that New Zealanders are sufficiently well-informed to make sensible decisions, and that our health professionals, travel and border control agencies have the information and the tools they need to help protect New Zealanders against SARS.

"Today's developments reflect that commitment."

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