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Ministry holds national influenza pademic exercise

Media Release

8 November 2006

Ministry of Health holding nationwide influenza pandemic exercise

The Ministry of Health is staging a nationwide influenza pandemic exercise tomorrow.

Exercise Makgill will involve the country's 21 District Health Boards, ESR and the Ministry of Health's National Health Coordination Centre, said National Coordinator of Pandemic Planning Steve Brazier.

Ministry staff and DHBs will spend 10 hours staging a scenario that involves "cluster control" or stamping out the pandemic before it spreads through the country.

Mr Brazier said Exercise Makgill will be an ‘enhanced’ table-top exercise, where plans are practised as realistically as possible while business continues as usual for health services.

“We are asking people to do more than simply tick boxes; we're looking to give people a bit of a challenge around the kinds of things that could happen in a real pandemic."

The past 18 months has seen the Ministry of Health leading many government and other agencies through intensive planning for a potential influenza pandemic.

This work has led to the New Zealand Influenza Pandemic Action Plan (NZIPAP).

Now the NZIPAP is completed, Exercise Makgill is the first of two exercises to review the plans and ensure a robust national response.

Mr Brazier said the size of the exercise meant there was a significant amount of preparation involved.

“A huge amount of hard work is going on behind the scenes to ensure this is a valuable learning experience for everyone involved.

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The lessons learnt from Exercise Makgill will enable existing plans to be modified and reassessed in the major exercise – Cruickshank – in May 2007.”

Public Health Director Dr Mark Jacobs said an influenza pandemic remains one of the biggest international threats to public health.

“An influenza pandemic occurs when a new type of influenza virus develops which can spread between people and make them sick and spreads around the world. Because the virus is new, people don't have any immunity and many people can become seriously ill.”

In the past 100 years there have been three influenza pandemics. "

"New Zealand has been actively preparing for an influenza pandemic for some time and we have detailed plans in place. Testing our preparedness through exercises is important for making sure we are as ready as we can be when the next influenza pandemic starts. ”

The exercise will evaluate how well the Ministry of Health and District Health Boards can gather critical information, respond to an unfolding scenario, and how well they use all the information they receive.

For this reason, the detailed scenario behind the exercise cannot be revealed to the media and public until the exercise has finished. Further general information is available from the Ministry of Health's website.


What is influenza?
Influenza is a highly infectious illness caused by a virus.

What are the symptoms?
Influenza usually causes two or three of the following symptoms:
· Sudden onset of fever
· Aches and pains
· Severe fatigue
· Headache
· Cough
· Sore throat
· Stuffy or runny nose

How is it spread?
Influenza is very infectious. It spreads through the air by coughing, sneezing and on hands, cups, cutlery or on other objects that have been in contact with an infected person’s mouth or nose. Adults are infectious for five days after symptoms occur and children for seven days.

How long does it last?
Symptoms usually start to clear up after five to seven days.

Do antibiotics help?
Antibiotics do NOT work against viruses, so they have no effect on influenza itself. Some people may need antibiotics because they have a secondary infection as well as influenza.

How common is influenza in the community?
Each year different strains of influenza circulate in New Zealand. Most cases occur during the winter months.

What is an influenza epidemic?
An epidemic occurs when there is larger number of cases of influenza than normally expected.

What is a pandemic?
An influenza pandemic occurs when a new type of influenza virus develops and this spreads to most countries of the world. Because the virus is new, no one has any immunity and many people become seriously ill. An influenza pandemic has the potential to cause widespread death and illness as well as social and economic disruption.

Have we had a pandemic before or is it something new?
The twentieth century has seen three true pandemics. The first and most devastating occurred in 1918-19, followed by the pandemics of 1957-58 and 1968-69.

What happened in 1918?
The largest pandemic in history was in 1918. An estimated 20-40 million people died of the disease, which was notorious for its rapid onset and progression to respiratory failure and death. The highest numbers of deaths occurred in the 20-40 age group. Studies in New Zealand military camps showed that 30-40 percent were affected in the first wave and 50 percent by the second wave.

What happened in 1957 and 1968?
In May 1957 the Asian influenza was identified in Singapore. By May 1958 it had spread worldwide. Infection rates were reported to range from 20-70 percent, but fatalities were low ranging from 1 in 2000 to 1-10,000 infections. In New Zealand the pandemic began in Wellington in August 1957. The most at risk were people aged from 10-30 years. A second wave hit in late 1959.

In July 1968 a new type emerged in Hong Kong - it reached New Zealand in early 1969. Sporadic cases were reported during summer and autumn and it reached epidemic levels in June and July.

What exercises are planned?
The exercises are:
Exercise Makgill November 2006.
Exercise Cruickshank May 2007.
The first exercise aims to assess some of the most difficult aspects of pandemic planning. Lessons learnt from this initial exercise will enable existing plans to be modified and reassessed in the major exercise in May 2007. The names of the exercises were chosen as they all relate to the 1918 influenza epidemic in New Zealand.

What is the likelihood of another pandemic occurring?
The world will experience another influenza pandemic in the foreseeable future. It could occur at any time. Influenza is an on-going and worldwide threat to public health. The ability of the influenza virus to change by mutation results in altered viruses, which can cause regular epidemics. In New Zealand epidemic influenza most commonly peaks in the winter months of July and August.

Are we at risk in New Zealand?
Everyone worldwide is at risk. New Zealand would almost certainly be affected by influenza pandemic.


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