16 Jun 2009

Swine flu cases rise to 86

6:17 am on 16 June 2009

The number of confirmed cases of swine flu in New Zealand has jumped to 86.

The number almost doubled during the weekend to 71, including 12 new cases in the Samoan community in Christchurch.

Health Minister Tony Ryall says 15 more cases have been confirmed on Monday, and more are expected as the flu spreads. There could also be a second wave of a more serious strain of swine flu, he says.

Mr Ryall says the Health Ministry is stepping up its health information campaign this week.

He says there would normally be about 31,000 medical admissions to hospital over the winter months, but health officials say there could be an extra 4,000 admissions this winter.

And some family doctors are asking patients with flu-like symptoms to enter clinics via a side door to avoid spreading swine flu to patients in waiting rooms.

Deputy director of public health Fran McGrath says patients who may have been in contact with someone who has been travelling overseas should call their doctors before heading to clinics.

Primary school shuts doors

A small Catholic Auckland primary schools has become the first school to close its doors to all students after a Year 5 pupil was confirmed as having the swine flu virus.

Carmel Bullot, principal of St Patrick's in Panmure, says she was contacted on Sunday by Auckland regional health authorities, though the decision to close was made late on Monday afternoon.

Ms Bullot says 36 of the 145 children on the roll were absent on Monday, and four more were sent home before lunch.

Specialist centres set up

Specialist testing centres have been set up at hospitals in Wellington and Lower Hutt for people who public health officials refer to be swabbed for the virus to keep them away from regular hospital patients.

However, Wellington's medical officer of health, Margot McLean, says only those referred to the centres should go there.

There have been 26 confirmed cases of the H1N1 virus in Wellington in the last week.

Dr McLean says about 50 people have been tested at the centre, which has been set up in an unused building next to Wellington Hospital.

The Ministry of Health has moved up its national pandemic planning to level 6.2 - the last phase before what it calls "Code Red", in which the virus is not contained and widespread.

Mr Ryall says there is no cause for alarm. He says more cases can be expected now that the disease is being transmitted through the community, but the virus is mild and most people infected have been able to manage it themselves without medication - and have recovered quickly.

Mr Ryall says health authorities are trying to delay its spread to reduce the stress on emergency departments and GP clinics, already under pressure with seasonal flu.

It is anticipated swine flu may have another two months to run before its potency begins to fade in New Zealand.

Canterbury Health Laboratories' clinical virologist Lance Jennings told Morning Report on Monday that the virus will become too difficult to contain as larger cluster infections emerge.

"Typically, epidemics of influenza in small communities last from four to six weeks and then tail off. So I anticipate that we'll have this virus circulating in New Zealand for perhaps another two months yet."

Canterbury Medical Officer of Health Alistair Humphrey says the spread of the virus has sped up and once community transmission begins in Christchurch, health authorities will have no choice but to give up trying to contain the virus.

High schools take quarantine action

Burnside High School in Christchurch and Auckland's Westlake Girls' High School have imposed partial quarantine after a student at each school contracted the virus.

Nearly a quarter of Westlake students has been ordered by health officials to stay home this week after a Year 12 girl contracted the virus. Other people with symptoms will also be treated with the drug Tamiflu.

Board of trustees chairman Alan Curtis says the school is keeping close contact with others in the area - in particular Westlake Boys, at which many of the girls have brothers. The school is also reviewing whether to go ahead with some extra-curricular activities.

Westlake Girls High School principal Alison Gernhoefer says she is concerned about the academic studies of quarantined students.

Ms Gernhoefer says the school is making course work available online so the students can work from home. She says a week is a long time for senior students to have off school.

About 450 Westlake students are affected by the move

Burnside principal Ron Noordijk says 47 Year 9 pupils and five teachers are being treated with Tamiflu and kept in home isolation until Wednesday.

Mr Ryall says that in Australia school closures have slowed the spread of the disease and he expects more schools to adopt the same measures if need be.

Police recruits test positive

Two recruits at the Police College in Porirua near Wellington have tested positive for swine flu.

A police spokesperson says a 30-year-old woman has been in isolation at the college and is recovering well.

On Sunday the college postponed courses due to start this week after a man in his 30s tested positive.

Fifty people are in isolation and staff are working with health officials to identify other people who could have been in contact with the ill recruits.

National training manager superintendent Mike Wilson says there have been whooping cough and cases of norovirus at the college in the past, and it has a plan in place to deal with any outbreak.

Between 300 and 500 people are at the college during the week.

Council urges communication

The Council of Trade Unions says workplaces need to boost communication with workers about swine flu, as concerns about the virus escalate and health officials brace for more cases.

CTU secretary Peter Conway says most workplaces have been good at providing information to staff about the virus, but some are not being as co-operative.

Mr Conway says employees from a passenger transport company have asked for advice and information about swine flu, but the company has been "pretty slow" in providing guidance.

Mr Conway would not name the company but says the union is discussing the matter with it. "This is an area where a lot of co-operation and information is needed. Everyone's saying 'Don't panic' but steps need to be taken."

The Employers and Manufacturers Association says the rapid rise in swine flu cases should prompt businesses to think about how they would cope if the virus becomes even more widespread.

The association's employment services manager, David Lowe, says businesses must plan for the virus becoming more widespread and how they would operate with large numbers of staff away.

Mr Lowe says employers should remind staff about measures to prevent the spread of the virus and even explain sick leave entitlements. He says the situation is changing daily and businesses should follow advice given by health officials.

Rugby test still on - Wellington mayor

Wellington Mayor Kerry Prendergast has poured cold water on any suggestion of cancelling this weekend's All Black rugby test because of swine flu.

Ms Prendergast says she will take advice from the Health Ministry before Saturday's game against France, but at this stage she believes it is unlikely the game would be called off.