Editorial: Timely warnings

Two particularly nasty bugs, one a flu and the other an even more damaging strain of norovirus, are bringing timely warnings from scientists and health professionals that the public needs to take care, especially with personal hygiene.

The norovirus, labelled Sydney 2012 after University of New South Wales microbiology and molecular biology Professor Peter White helped to identify the variant while working with New Zealand scientists last year, is the latest mutation and is reported to be killing up to 200,000 people each year around the world.

This mutation is so virulent because the human immune system does not recognise it and there is no vaccine or treatment. It is highly contagious and is at its most devastating among young children and the elderly, as rest homes in the south discovered last winter.

So far there is no vaccine or even effective treatment for this variant but there are precautions that limit the damage, such as the lockdown and isolation put in place by the Rowena Jackson retirement village in Invercargill last July. Some 115 residents and 48 staff were hit by the virus, but there was not one fatality.

As Otago-Southland Medical Officer of Health Marion Poore says, everyone in the community could be exposed to the virus, which causes up to 48 hours of vomiting and diarrhoea and can also bring on nausea, headaches and fever.

Fortunately, the virus has a much shorter life-span in summer, but Ms Poore notes that the health board is currently investigating outbreaks being reported throughout Southland and Otago.

There is a lot we can all do, though, to protect ourselves and washing our hands after visiting the bathroom and before preparing food for ourselves and others is possibly the most simple and effective protection of all - that and staying away from work and other public places for at least another 48 hours after symptoms have disappeared.

Those same rules are the best deterrents against the other really nasty bug likely to hit New Zealanders hard this winter, a potentially deadly flu strain now sweeping North America. United States health officials are reporting that 7.3 per cent of all deaths in the US last week were believed to be related to influenza and pneumonia as the H3N2 strain put thousands of people in hospital during the northern hemisphere winter.

New Zealand was brushed by this strain last winter but it is predicted to have a more widespread impact next June, July and August and health authorities throughout the country have already begun preparing for the new flu season.

There will be a vaccine available as it is in the leadup to each winter flu season, and this one will include protection from the H3N2 strain, health officials say. It will be available from March and will be free to pregnant women, adults with long-term health conditions and people aged over 65.

As well, many employers provide free flu injections to their staff and everyone who can should take advantage of those offers. For most of us, vaccines do work and while many people are not keen to be jabbed with a needle, any short-term discomfort is likely to prevent a miserable winter of colds.

One of New Zealand's leading experts in this area, virologist Lance Jennings, of Christchurch, acknowledges that scientists are always playing catchup with vaccines because they cannot predict changes in strains of influenza viruses, but says the system works. He recommends that people should get vaccinated each year. It's good advice.

The Southland Times