Bird flu dead 'wouldn't be buried for six months'

Plans to ban funerals and refrigerate bodies for up to six months during a bird flu pandemic have outraged Maori.

The plans, unveiled at a meeting at Rotorua Hospital, have upset some kaumatua who say proposed bans on tangi and hongi have the potential to cause "uproar" among Maori.

District health boards across the country are planning how to cope with an influenza pandemic following the spread of the H5N1 virus throughout Asia and parts of Europe.

So far it has killed about 60 people.

The flu virus has only been contracted by people who have had direct contact with infected poultry but officials fear the virus will mutate and spread easily between humans.

To prevent the virus from arriving in New Zealand and spreading, the Ministry of Health is preparing interventions like closing borders and schools and restricting public gatherings.

Bay of Plenty medical officer of health Paul Martiquet said during a pandemic, the dead would be refrigerated or frozen in containers and buried as soon as it was over -- meaning funerals and tangi would be temporarily banned.

"We wouldn't want funerals or tangi taking place because they would be a breeding ground for exposing large groups of people to the virus," Dr Martiquet said.

Other strategies being discussed include a ban on hongi -- a traditional Maori greeting -- as any close contact between people could spread the virus.

The plans have upset Maori in Rotorua who say they conflict with their cultural beliefs.

Te Arawa Maori Trust Board chairman Anaru Rangiheuea said tangi were the most important cultural practice for Maori and any delays in farewelling the dead would only aggravate the grieving process.

"Being isolated from a loved one would have serious implications for many families and there would be issues for Maori on how their dead were being treated."

Pihopa (Bishop) Kingi said a hongi was nothing to be feared and was safer than kissing.

"No one can pass on germs by pressing noses. I don't see how it could be censured."

Te Runanga O Ngati Pikiao chief executive Dennis Curtis said hongi and tangi were as natural to Maori as "breathing air" and any ban on their practices would outrage Maori.

Staff at Rotorua's Te Puia tourist attraction, however, say a hongi ban would not affect the cultural experience of its visitors.

Historically, Te Puia guides greet visitors with a hongi but the practice was stopped about two years ago during the Sars (Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome) crisis.


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