Flupocalypse – the doomsday scenario
Imagine a global flu pandemic that spreads rapidly around the world, killing millions.
As more and more people die, countries lose control and society breaks down. New Zealand tries to close its borders before the bug reaches here, but it's too late. It spreads rapidly – businesses and schools close; doctors and police die in large numbers; power systems fail and the internet goes down.
The Government has one option. It isolates the small flu-free population on Great Barrier Island in Auckland's Hauraki Gulf New Zealand goes silent and the 900 people on Great Barrier are on their own.
Far-fetched? Maybe - but not entirely impossible, says Kiwi virology expert Dr Lance Jennings, who will soon take part in a panel discussion on just such a scenario, in an event called Exploring Pandemics to be held on Great Barrier in September.
Jennings will be joined by a civil defence leader, a sociologist and a science fiction writer, and together they will explore the potential consequence of the global outbreak of deadly virus, and the role the community on Great Barrier could have in surviving the event.
Jennings, a virologist with the University of Otago says although the event is clearly intended to be slightly playful, there is a deadly serious side to considering extreme scenarios, and that a global outbreaks of influenza in which millions die is much more than a sci-fi fantasy.
In 1918 the influenza pandemic is estimated to have killed 50 to 100 million people, and infected 500 million people around the world. In New Zealand around 1.2 per cent of the entire population was killed. No event has killed so many New Zealanders in such a short time.
Current avian influenza viruses circulating in Asia and the Mediterranean are infecting humans, and these a mortality rate of more than 50 per cent. But these viruses don't have the ability to be easily transmitted from person to person. But that doesn't mean that one day it won't, says Jennings.
"The scenario of another pandemic affecting a large proportion of the world's population is entirely feasible. We could surmise if this virus could gain this ability to be transmitted from human to human, and we know all the mutations that allow this exist in nature, that poses a scenario that this virus might have a similarly high mortality rate if it spread from person to person globally."
And based on the 1918 experience in Samoa, the idea that one small remote area such as Great Barrier might become a safe haven from a global outbreak isn't far-fetched either, says Jennings.
Western Samoa was laid low by the flu after a ship from New Zealand failed to observe quarantine, introducing the virus and leading to a mortality rate approaching 50 per cent.
American Samoa meanwhile, observed tight quarantine and the virus was not introduced until a year later, and was not responsible for any deaths.
"Once again, from a scientific basis looking at examples that have occurred, then [a Great Barrier sanctuary] is a perfectly feasible scenario," said Jennings.
The meeting is being held on September 12 at the Great Barrier sports and social club. Bookings for the free event are essential.