27 Apr 2009

Suspected swine flu cases in NZ monitored

10:55 pm on 27 April 2009

Health officials in New Zealand are working to contain a virus outbreak as suspected cases of swine flu are reported in several regions.

The Ministry of Health is still waiting for confirmation on whether a group of students and teachers from Auckland have contracted the new strain of influenza that has killed more than 100 people in Mexico.

Nine students and a teacher from Rangitoto College have tested positive for influenza A and are thought likely to have swine flu after a recent trip to Mexico. Samples were sent to Australia for testing on Monday afternoon.

Two Northcote College students and a parent, who also visited Mexico as part of an 18-strong group, are being tested in New Zealand for influenza A.

The Government has activated its pandemic response plans and wants all passengers who have arrived in New Zealand from Mexico or the United States in the past two weeks to come forward if they have flu-like symptoms.

The outbreak of the human form of swine flu has killed 103 people in Mexico to date. Twenty cases in the US and six in Canada have been reported and there are possible cases in New Zealand, France, Spain and Israel.

The swine flu strain, known as H1N1, is a variant of influenza A. It is the same strain that causes seasonal flu outbreaks in humans, but the newly detected version contains genetic material from versions of flu which usually affect pigs and birds. It is spread mainly through coughs and sneezes.

The Rangitoto College students were travelling on Air New Zealand Flight NZ 1, which arrived at Auckland International Airport at 5am on Saturday.

The Northcote College students were part of a 15-strong party that returned from Mexico on Air New Zealand Flight NZ 5 on Saturday.

Results on the Rangitoto students and teacher may be days away. However, principal David Hodge said on Monday that those affected seem to be responding well to the flu medication, Tamiflu.

The Ministry of Health says the Northcote test results should be known on Tuesday.

Other suspected cases

Health Minister Tony Ryall told Checkpoint that authorities are contacting passengers on both flights and there are other suspected cases throughout New Zealand.

The Canterbury District Health Board says it has been in touch with 37 people who were on Flight NZ 1. Seven have experienced flu symptoms.

Fourteen people from Otago and Southland who were on Flight NZ 1 are in voluntary quarantine in their homes, although none have flu symptoms. They are taking Tamiflu as a precaution.

Nelson-Marlborough District Health Board says it is following up 18 people on the flights and has 20 people in its area in quarantine.

West Coast DHB says four West Coast passengers were on Flight NZ 1 and are in quarantine, while Waikato DHB says it is investigating two possible cases of swine flu.

In Wanganui, three family members who were on Flight NZ 1 have volunteered to be isolated. Whanganui DHB says they show no signs of infection, but are taking Tamiflu. It is also trying to track down two other people on that flight.

Air New Zealand says 18 crew and two other staff who were on Flight NZ 1 have been ordered to stay home.

Incoming flights screened

Health officials are screening large numbers of passengers arriving from North and South America to New Zealand amid concern that swine flu is now spreading globally.

Doctors and nurses met five flights from the Americas which landed at Auckland International Airport from 3am on Monday. About 1000 passengers were screened, with no suspected cases of swine flu picked up.

The Ministry of Health says two passengers reported possible symptoms to air crew or ground staff. Both were screened on arrival and cleared.

Health Director-General Stephen McKernan says New Zealand authorities are in close contact with other countries over the swine flu outbreak in Mexico and elsewhere.

Hospitals prepare

District Health Boards are preparing for the possibility of a pandemic.

In Wellington, anyone presenting with flu-like symptoms will be questioned about their recent travel history and will have swabs taken for testing.

Canterbury District Health Board is activating its community and public health plan for any people who were on Flight NZ 1. It recommends that people concerned about flu-like symptoms phone their GP first.

The Nelson-Marlborough DHB is prepared to activate an emergency operations centre and is confident it has adequate stocks of Tamiflu.

In Otago and Southland, a full emergency response structure is being initiated to make sure staff are aware of pandemic plans and isolation procedures.

Don't spread germs, says GP

The head of the College of General Practitioners is advising anyone who may have the flu to stay home rather than go to their doctor's surgery.

Jonathan Fox says it is better for people who are feeling unwell to stay home and contact their GP or the Ministry of Health's 24-hour Healthline telephone service.

"There's sources of information that you can access by telephone, rather than taking your germs to your local surgery."

The ministry says extra nurses have been put on the Healthline to cope with a surge in calls. People who have travelled to North and South America in the past fortnight should contact the Healthline, it says.

Flu is characterised by a sudden fever, muscle aches, sore throat and dry cough. Victims of the new strain have also suffered more vomiting and diarrhea than is usual with flu.

The Healthline number is: 0800 611 116.