16 Nov 2023

NZ needs centre for disease control, experts say

5:30 am on 16 November 2023
University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker

Epidemiologist Michael Baker said most comparable countries already had CDC-type organisations. Photo: University of Otago Wellington / Luke Pilkinton-Ching​

Experts say New Zealand needs a centre for disease control (CDC)to better prepare for future pandemics.

A new paper by scientists from the Public Health Communication Centre argues that such an agency would build the science capacity needed for responding to future pandemics and to better manage existing infectious disease threats.

One of the authors, epidemiologist Michael Baker, said most comparable countries already had "essential infrastructure" like this.

"Many countries already have established CDC-type organisations that take responsibility for integrated surveillance, co-ordinated laboratory testing, outbreak response, workforce training, and strategic capacity building. Australia is in the process of establishing a federal CDC," he said.

"We are notably absent from the list of countries with field epidemiology training programmes. These programmes ensure a capable workforce of epidemiologists ready to spring into action to track and limit the spread of emerging infectious diseases."

New Zealand had managed the Covid-19 pandemic well, but the response was more expensive and disruptive than necessary, Baker said.

"We could have acted faster at our borders and avoided Covid-19 coming in, we could have had contact tracing that was working more efficiently. In the end it took our whole government to focus on this one disease for the best part of two years," he said.

"The benefit of having a dedicated centre that is thinking about these threats and is organising systems in advance is you could get also a very good outcome, but you could get an outcome that was much more efficient and less disruptive."

John Crump

John Crump said pandemics by definition crossed borders so they needed to be combated at a global level. Photo: Supplied/ Otago University

Another author, John Crump, had trained at the United States CDC and said New Zealand needed to have a global public health perspective.

"Pandemics by definition cross borders, so we need to combat them at a global level," Crump said.

"As a high-income country, New Zealand has obligations through, for example, official development assistance to collaborate to support capacity building in low- and middle-income countries.

"A national CDC would be an important way to contribute to effective global efforts. It could also be a key focal point for sharing expertise with corresponding organisations internationally."

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