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New step in planning for a pandemic

3 November 2005

New step in planning for a pandemic

PLANS to protect New Zealanders against a possible influenza pandemic have been strengthened through an agreement with an Australian manufacturer for supplies of pandemic vaccine once developed, the Ministry of Health says.

"We have a formal arrangement with Australia's CSL Ltd - the only influenza vaccine manufacturer in the Southern Hemisphere - which gives us a guaranteed supply if we need a pandemic vaccine,” Director of Public Health Dr Mark Jacobs said today.

“Under the arrangement it is anticipated that we will get access to a pandemic vaccine within four to six months of the World Health Organisation declaring the existence of a pandemic. This timing, however, is dependent on a number of factors,” Dr Jacobs said.

"We have also asked other manufacturers to advise us if they could supply a vaccine for use in the event of a pandemic. This request for proposals is not affected by the agreement with CSL.''

Dr Jacobs said the request for proposals canvassed two different options: an H5N1 vaccine and a pandemic vaccine.

H5N1 vaccine is being developed to protect against the currently-circulating bird flu virus - H5N1. However such vaccines are still undergoing clinical trials. For a pandemic to develop H5N1 has to mutate. Depending on how it mutates the H5N1 vaccine may or may not protect against it.

Either way manufacturers would then have to develop a vaccine specific to the mutated virus. This could be relatively simple if the difference isn't great, or more complex if it is. " We simply won't know until a pandemic emerges how closely the H5N1vaccine matches the pandemic viruses and therefore how much protection it will offer."

" We have done our best to access vaccines so we can protect all New Zealanders," Dr Jacobs said.

"However, I must stress that no manufacturer will be able to produce a vaccine that will definitely give protection against pandemic influenza until a pandemic is declared by WHO: it's catch 22. Until we know exactly what the virus causing widespread human disease is, we cannot come up with a vaccine against that virus.

"What this means, of course, is that people will not be able to be protected via immunisation during the early months of a future pandemic.

"This underlines the importance of efforts to keep a future pandemic of influenza out of New Zealand, or at least to delay its entry."

Dr Jacobs said it was relevant that in the 1918 pandemic there were three separate waves of infection. "If vaccine becomes available after an initial wave of infection, a national immunisation programme could be important in protecting people against subsequent waves."

Dr Jacobs said that personal hygiene measures everyone can implement would continue to form a crucial part of helping to reduce the risk of influenza infection. At a community level, there are very simple, practical measures families and individuals can take to help themselves, in the event of a pandemic.

These are:
- regular handwashing using soap, remembering to dry them thoroughly afterwards
- covering your nose or mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze and safely disposing of the used tissue in a bin
- If you are sick, avoiding contact with others , and staying home from work to reduce the risk of passing on the infection
- making sure you have enough food and water in the house to keep going if you become sick and can't get out to the shops. Plan for about a week's worth of supplies
- having a supply of paracetamol in the house to reduce fevers in people who are sick.

ENDS

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