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Interest in Wellington Bird Flu seminar high

MEDIA RELEASE
New Zealand Society for Risk Management Inc
October 21, 2005


Interest in Wellington Bird Flu seminar high

Interest in a half-day seminar on Bird Flu is high indicating people are concerned about how they will react to such an event according to seminar convenor Chris Peace.

“People are very aware of the risk of bird flu and the possible ramifications for New Zealand, particularly with the high profile news reports that have been coming in,” Mr Peace says.

“The message is getting out there that Bird Flu should not be ignored and people are looking to see how they will be affected and how they should react when it crosses the species barrier and becomes a human to human disease.”

The New Zealand Society for Risk Management seminar, “Avian Influenza – The Next Pandemic”, has taken over 150 registrations and more continue to come in daily. The seminar, to be held at Te Papa Museum in Wellington, has attracted attendees from several government departments as well as health agencies, insurance companies and local government councils.

“It shows that they are taking responsible measures to learn as much as they can to be as prepared as they can, particularly with something that has no definite timetable.”

Speakers from the Ministries of Health, Economic Development, Civil Defence and Emergency Management and Department of Customs has been confirmed and there is an expectation that the government agencies will share the strategies they have devised to manage the risk.

“With the feedback we are getting there is enough scope to have a full day, if not several days, for the seminar. While it is heartening to have such a good response to the seminar, it also demonstrates how serious a pandemic would be to New Zealand and to the world,” Mr Peace says.

“We’re all on high alert for when, not if, it occurs which is a frightening thought. However, it’s good to know that our new Minister of Health has indicated New Zealand is one of the better prepared nations in the world.”


ENDS

AVIAN BIRD FLU SEMINAR
Society for Risk Management
Backgrounder
21 October 2005


There is widespread concern that a Bird Flu pandemic could hit the world at any given time. Media reports continue to relay the deaths of people in Asia as a result of the virus, while confirmed reports of the disease among poultry have now come from Turkey meaning Europe is now at risk for the first time.

Concerns continue to be raised and discussed about the possibility of the virus, which has so far only been fatal to people associated with infected birds, mutating into a human-to-human disease. It is this prospect which is most worrisome on an international scale as it there are fears the pandemic could be as lethal as the 1918 Spanish Flu which killed 20-40 million people globally.

Avian Bird Flu has always existed in some form and there has been consideration that some genetic parts of current human flu A viruses came originally from birds. Its affect on humans only recently come to fore as it was previously seen as an infection that did not transmit beyond its own species and the risk to humans deemed low.

However, in 1997 several cases of human infection with bird flu occurred. The specific type of the virus is called H5N1 and human infection was seen as a risk to people to have contact with infected birds or surfaces that have been contaminated with excretions from infected birds. The spread to humans was seen as possible by people in contact with contaminated birds but the spread from human to human is what is of most concern now.

To date there have been 60 deaths as a result of H5N1 bird flu and the spread of the disease has not officially occurred beyond one person. However, the alarm had been raised that bird flu has broken down the “final door” which prevented its spread between people. The death of an 11-year-old girl in 2004 sent shivers down the spines of bird flu experts and researchers as they suspected she has passed the disease onto her mother. The girl contracted the virus and passed it on to her aunt whom she lived with. The aunt survived, however, the girl’s mother, who lived in Bangkok and came to care for the child in hospital, contracted the virus and also succumbed.

There have been no further reports of human-to-human spread of the disease similar to that particular case but the expectation is it could happen at any time.

Further concern has been raised about how beneficial the anti-viral drug Tamiflu would be should the there be a pandemic. A child in Asia with the disease was given Tamiflu to combat the infection. The disease showed resistant to the drug meaning its usefulness in a human influenza pandemic may be limited or, at worst, pointless.

There are six stages to a pandemic. Currently we are in phase three where there has been human infection with a new influenza sub-type but no real human to human spread. On the scale we are half way to a possible pandemic and preparation for an outbreak when, not if, is paramount. It has been 36 years since the last pandemic and it is expected that a pandemic should occur. Whether it will be as a result of Bird Flu remains to be seen.
Humans are mainly at risk from either an antigenic shift of the virus or reassortment of the virus. An antigenic shift is when a new flu sub-type which humans have little or no immunity to, infects humans. It is believed this is what has been seen now with the avian bird flu. However, reassortment also poses a higher risk and should also be explored and explained.

Fresh reports and concerns about bird flu being transmitted between humans do not appear to have occurred, but internationally, organisations and governments are on high alert.

Governments across the world are preparing for the likely event of a pandemic as the risk is assessed as being high. The likelihood is that borders may need to be closed to control the spread of the disease and planes may be turned away mid-air if there is a suspicion the virus could be on board. Quarantines are also possible.

At this time, assistance is being given to Indonesia and Thailand to control the outbreak of the virus there in birds and its spread to humans in contact with the virus. This is the site of the reported human-to-human spread of the virus between a mother, daughter and aunt and the wish is to work strongly with this area in an effort to control the virus as much as possible.

In New Zealand, awareness of the risk of a pandemic has led to stocks of the anti-viral drug Tamiflu being sold out. It is believed that Tamiflu is the best hope against any epidemic, however, the drug’s manufacturer, Roche, cannot keep up with demand. It takes 12-18 months to produce and supply Tamiflu after an initial order.

The World Health Organisation has recommended Governments stockpile supplies for essential workers and the NZ Government has committed $26 million to buying 850,000 doses of Tamiflu. This would only be enough for one in five people and more New Zealanders are opting to buy their own stocks for about $75, hence the lack of supplies.

There are hopes, however, that a bird flu vaccine can be produced before a pandemic occurs. Australia is currently pushing through a vaccine trial. The aim is to have a preventative medication on the market by mid next year to assist with the projected outbreak of the virus.

Geographically speaking, the virus had been “contained” within the Asian region. In animals the virus has been found in Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Korea, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, Philippines, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam. In people the geographic extent is not as vast as it has occurred in Hong Kong, China, Thailand, Vietnam and now Indonesia. There was previously little optimism that the disease would not spread further, however. This fear has been proven to be accurate as Bird Flu has now been detected in Europe.

The biggest issue is that because birds are migratory, and the disease spreads between domesticated and wild birds, authorities will have to be vigilant to ensure that a wild migratory bird does not take the disease further afield than it has already. It has already seen a progression to Russia and Kazakhstan in water fowl and with the migration to Turkey the level of concern for human safety has risen markedly.

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