December 14, 2005

Bird flu: human pandemic could disrupt a country for more than six months - New Zealand's leading news and information website

Extract from Manawatu Standard New Zealand which indicates how another government is thinking about the threat of bird flu spreading amongst humans. As I have always said, the biggest impact is likely to be from an emotional reaction amongst people at home and at work, which will propel governments to drastic measures such as border closure even where such measures have been largely overtaken by events. The most likely scenario is a mutation into human form of bird flu (100% likely according to the World Health Organisation - only a matter of time) but in a far less dangerous way than worst case scenarios, perhaps with a death toll equivalent to 2-5 times a normal annual flu epidemic.

Text of the news bulletin:

Emergency managers are warning that a bird flu pandemic could last up to six months and people should be prepared to stay indoors that long.

Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management readiness manager Mike O'Leary said a bird flu pandemic could strike in multiple waves, lasting up to six months.

"Three waves of approximately eight weeks each is what we are planning for," Mr O'Leary told Human Resources magazine.

Local Government Online chief executive Jim Higgins said it is rubbish to think a pandemic would last a few days.

". . .I've heard people on television speaking of a pandemic lasting a week or two, and I think, 'That's complete rubbish.' More likely a pandemic is going to last for three to six months, with two or three waves of infection."

Local Government Online would be key to providing information during an pandemic.

New Zealand's existing emergency response planning is for short, sharp disasters, such as earthquakes or floods, with mop-up afterward.

"When you think about all the (emergency response) planning that's been done to date, none of it includes anything about not being able to go outside for an extended period of perhaps three to six months. This threat is unique," Mr Higgins said.

Mr O'Leary also warned New Zealand would largely have to manage alone: "Public expectations will be high that relief will come to them, but there will be no cavalry coming over the horizon."

Bird flu is now only a threat, but health experts are worried that a small mutation of the H5N1 virus could let it transmit between humans, and humans have no natural immunity to it.

Health Ministry senior clinical adviser Andrea Forde said the key to surviving any pandemic will be in how well prepared people are, how quickly people can respond and how soon recovery happens.

A pandemic outbreak would see quarantine measures imposed, closing schools and workplaces to prevent infection from spreading. International borders would also be closed, affecting exports and imports. The experts say it could take months to get business functioning again. Getting back to normal would take longer.

Mr Higgins said businesses had to accept the pandemic is going to happen and to start planning.

"It's not a Y2K scenario. If businesses fail to heed this and do not have contingency plans in place, they will most likely grind to a halt."

Ministry of Economic Development resources and networks director Tony Fenwick said a pandemic would see businesses close either because they had to or through reduced demand.

Key industries must plan now for a pandemic, Mr Fenwick said.

"Undisrupted provision of key infrastructure services, the food-supply chain, the capacity of the health sector, the continued operation of banking-payments systems and the legal system are areas we must focus on," he said.

Mr Higgins said the chance of containing bird flu, as Sars was contained, may be remote because of the more infectious nature of influenza.

". . .so we have to look at ways to ride a pandemic out. One of the best ways to do that will be to limit personal contact," he said.

That means businesses have to immediately start looking at ways staff can work from home. Email and telecommunications will be the top tools to keep functioning.

"This really is the sort of line we have to follow to avoid unnecessary infection."

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