New Zealand begins swine flu tests

West Coast mayor in isolation

Last updated 20:15 30/04/2009
Reuters Zoom
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ESR scientists have begun testing swine flu samples in New Zealand as suspected cases rise and officials remind Kiwis they can only buy Tamiflu over the counter if they are unwell.

New Zealand has not escalated its response to the swine flu outbreak, despite the World Health Organisation (WHO) declaring a Phase 5 outbreak, indicating a pandemic could be imminent.

The number of suspected cases of swine flu in New Zealand was reported tonight to have risen to 111, up from 96 yesterday.

The Ministry of Health said that the number of people in isolation tonight was also up from 111 to 121.

But the number of people confirmed or being treated as confirmed swine flu cases remained at 13, all in the Auckland area.

The growth in suspect numbers was primarily due to including close family contacts from passengers on flights from affected countries, Health Minister Tony Ryall said today.

Specialist scientists have been co-opted to assist with the testing process at ESR's National Influenza Centre, a statement said today. "Now the swine flu has been confirmed in New Zealand and the molecular structure of the virus has been identified, ESR's WHO National Influenza Centre can perform the testing."

Meanwhile, at a press conference this morning health officials said while Tamiflu could be purchased over the counter from tomorrow, patients needed to be exhibiting symptoms before they would be sold the anti-viral medication.

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"[Buyers] need to be in the early stages of influenza," Deputy Director of Public Health Dr Fran McGrath said.

"If they're not in the early stages then they need to see their doctor for a prescription."

More test results are expected today from patients suspected of having swine flu. The tests will confirm whether they have Influenza A and once this is established more complicated tests will be carried out for swine flu. All suspected patients are however being treated as if they have swine flu and are being isolated for 72 hours and given a course of Tamiflu.

Included in the isolation tally is Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn. He is under quarantine at home today - one day before a scheduled meeting with Prime Minister John Key.

Mr Kokshoorn and his family flew home from a holiday in Hawaii and North America a day before the "swine flu flight" that carried the flu strain to New Zealand.

A family member was now taking Tamiflu as a precaution and being tested for influenza A after becoming sick five days later, Mr Kokshoorn said today. "[But] I want to stress - I haven't got the flu. I've never been better."

NEW ZEALAND'S RESPONSE

Health officials moved today to establish a "community-based assessment centre", most likely at Auckland's Middlemore Hospital.

Director General of Public Health Stephen McKernan said a community assessment facility would likely be established at Middlemore, so clinical assessments for swine flu could be conducted away from the airport.

Treatment could also be given and patients could be put in isolation in the unit.

It is possible other similar centres will be established in other parts of the country if the flu spreads, he said.

Mr Ryall said New Zealand had moved to a phase 5.1 in its plan but "this is not an escalation in New Zealand's epidemic planning."

Officials were still working to "contain and mitigate" swine flu, he said.

Mr Ryall said 32 countries had now notified WHO of suspected or confirmed cases of swine flu.

"As you know we are working hard to identify people potentially with swine flu so we can provide them with treatment and support and limit the spread of the flu."

The Health Ministry said at least 10,000 people arrived here from North America each week and all were subject to screening.

Eleven people on a flight that stopped off in Auckland yesterday en route to Australia were taken to hospital, suspected of having the virus. Five of those were in transit.

Mr Ryall, said the Government had made an order-in-council making non-seasonal influenza a notifiable disease.

The Canterbury District Health Board has also set itself up at Christchurch International Airport to help passengers from overseas that are unwell.

PANDEMIC ALERT

Earlier today, the World Health Organisation has raised the pandemic threat level from swine flu to phase 5 as the virus spread and killed the first person outside Mexico, a toddler in Texas.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan made the decision to raise the alert level from phase 4 - signifying transmission in only one country - after reviewing the latest scientific evidence on the outbreak.

"I have decided to raise the level of influenza pandemic alert from phase 4 to phase 5," Chan told a news briefing.

Phase 5 is the WHO's second highest level of warning that a pandemic, or global outbreak of a serious new illness, is imminent. Phase 6 means a pandemic has begun.

Chan said she hoped to reassure governments but urged them to prepare for the worst.

"The world is better prepared for an influenza pandemic than at any time in history," Chan said. "For the first time in history we can track the pandemic in real time."

The H1N1 swine flu virus has spread around the world, killing an estimated 159 people in Mexico, claiming the life of a Mexican toddler in the United States, and infecting people in at least eight other countries.

It is a never-before-seen mix of swine, avian and human viruses and it is not clear how deadly it is or how easily it transmits from one person to another.

"No matter what the situation is, the international community should treat this as a window of opportunity to ramp up ... response," Chan said.

"It is really all of humanity that is under threat during a pandemic."

Pharmaceutical companies should ramp up manufacturing she said. Two antiviral drugs- Relenza, made by GlaxoSmithKline and Tamiflu, made by Roche AG- have been shown to work against the H1N1 swine flu strain.

Nearly a week after the H1N1 virus, or swine flu, first emerged in California and Texas and was found to have caused deaths in Mexico, Spain reported the first case in Europe of swine flu in a person who had not been to Mexico, illustrating the danger of person-to-person transmission.

Germany and Austria reported cases, bringing the number of affected countries to 9. US officials said a 22-month-old boy had died in Texas – the first confirmed US swine flu death – while on a family visit from Mexico.

- ANNA CHALMERS, Reuters, AP and NZPA

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