Swine flu in NZ: cases confirmed

Unfortunately Kiwis have tested positive: Minister

Last updated 22:13 28/04/2009

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Health officials have tonight announced that three of the Rangitoto College party that recently returned from Mexico have tested positive for swine flu.

At a press conference health officials said results from three samples tested at the World Health Organisation's Melbourne laboratory today had all come back positive for the same swine flu strain, H1N1.

"Unfortunately tonight we can confirm New Zealanders have tested positive to swine flu," Health Minister Tony Ryall said.

The swine flu virus has killed close to 150 people in Mexico and infected dozens in the United States, Canada and Europe. Spain's health minister has tonight confirmed a second case of swine flu, while Israel also confirmed one case.

Health officials said tonight they are investigating a further 43 cases of possible swine flu - this figure has been revised down from 56 following further investigations today.

WHO staff at the Melbourne lab selected the four best samples from the infected Rangitoto College party sent over after 10 tested positive for Influenza A on Sunday. An eleventh person has also tested positive. Testing is still being completed the fourth sample in Melbourne.

"On the basis of these results we are assuming that all of the people in the group, who had tested positive for Influenza A, have Swine Flu," a Ministry statement said.

There would be no changes in treatment for those confirmed as having swine flu. Those suspected so far been kept in isolation at home and given the anti-viral drug Tamiflu.

Rangitoto College principal David Hodge said most of the school party, which visited Mexico on a three week trip, had recovered with only one student, who already suffered from asthma, still unwell.

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He said he was shocked at tonight's result, "even though it was a possibility''.

But Auckland Regional Public Health officials said the families of the swine flu-infected had taken the news well.

Officials did not plan to update New Zealand's health alert code from "yellow" to "red" following the positive results. The result merely confirmed that it had been "sensible for us to have been cautious", Public Health Director Mark Jacobs said.

Dr Jacobs said the general public did not need to worry as officials were working to contain the spread and those with confirmed swine flu had so far experienced mild symptoms.

"There is no indication it is any more or less contagious than any other form of influenza,'' he said.

It was most contagious a day before symptoms appeared and up to seven days after. The greatest risk was in the early days.

"Our interpretation is that people who have spent time in Mexico, for instance, where it's likely that there are thousands of cases, are much more likely to have been affected by this particular strain than people who have been in Spain, where they've had one confirmed case," Dr Jacobs said.

SITUATION CONSTANTLY CHANGING

It comes as the WHO earlier warned today of a significantly increased risk of an influenza pandemic.

The WHO has escalated its handling of the outbreak, moving from a phase three to a phase four plan. This is characterised as sustained human-to-human transmission of an animal or human-animal influenza virus able to cause "community-level outbreaks."

It also announced work had started on a vaccine, but this was not expected to be completed for six to eight months.

Foreign Affairs also upgraded its travel advice to Mexico today. It has advised against all non-essential trips and says travel to Mexico is "high risk" due to swine flu.

Delivering a ministerial statement to the House earlier this afternoon, Mr Ryall said it was a time for authorities to be alert but not to panic.

The key public health message was that people who had been in Mexico or the United States in the last fortnight who developed flu-like symptoms should contact their GP or health professional. Others who had flu-like symptoms but who had not been to either Mexico or the US should treat any flu symptoms as normal seasonal influenza.

"This is a matter the government is treating with the utmost caution and concern. This is a threat New Zealand has planned for."

DEALING WITH POSSIBLE CASES

Meanwhile pupils at Northcote College, who were also in Mexico, were this morning cleared of having Influenza A.

Passengers on board NZ1 - the flight from Los Angeles carrying the Rangitoto College pupils - have also been asked to stay in isolation and given Tamiflu, Dr Jacobs said.

Dr Jacobs said passengers on board NZ5 - the Los Angeles flight carrying the Northcoate pupils - were no longer being sought as Influenza A results were negative on the three suspected cases.

Officials said this morning they were still chasing 18 passengers on board NZ1.

Passengers arriving from the US or Mexico are being questioned about whether they had experienced possible flu symptoms on arrival at Auckland International Airport.

REACTION TO RESPONSE MIXED

Reaction to health officials' response time in dealing with a potential swine flu outbreak in New Zealand is mixed.

Dr Peters has defended a delay in getting Melbourne testing underway with swabs only leaving New Zealand yesterday afternoon. She said the samples had needed special preparation and packaging.

One passenger who was on the same flight as the Rangitoto students, Ian Hooker, also said health officials had only contacted him yesterday morning, more than 48 hours after the flight had landed.

"We have been placed under quarantine as a result of today and I just can't help wondering whether that couldn't have been done on Sunday given that they knew about it on Saturday," he told Radio New Zealand.

He had been given Tamiflu and told to stay in doors for up to seven days as he had no symptoms.

However, others are praising the response. Dr Gay Keating of the Public Health Association said authorities had moved swiftly and the outbreak prevention was going exactly to plan.

TRAVELLERS WARNED

Indians have been warned against travelling to New Zealand following the suspected outbreak of swine flu.

New Zealand has been included in a travel advisory issued by the Indian government. It urges Indians to restrict travel to this country as well as the United States, Mexico, Canada and France.

All travellers flying into India from those countries will be individually checked for flu symptoms.

Doctors will be stationed at major international airports in India.

- By ANNA CHALMERS, TRACY WATKINS, Stuff.co.nz and NZPA

 

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