Brian Rudman: Call up MAF's Rambos to fight deadly bird flu

When the dreaded avian flu eventually erupts out of Vietnam or South China, I vote we put the shock troops from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in charge of keeping it out of Auckland. The recent foot-and-mouth-disease scare on Waiheke Island demonstrated that these guys mean business.

On the other hand, I'm not so sure about the softies at the Ministry of Health. You only have to read the two departments' contrasting mission statements on the subject to get my drift.

Here's MAF's reassuringly Rambo approach: "New Zealand is free of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI). All exotic strains of Influenzavirus Type A are classed as unwanted organisms under the Biosecurity Act, 1993 (The Act).

"The Government will respond to HPAI by stamping it out. The rationale for stamping out is based on the following considerations:

* Eradication is technically feasible.

* HPAI, if uncontrolled, would spread rapidly through our poultry production systems and may affect wild bird populations.

* Severe economic losses would result in affected and associated industries.

* Risks to NZ biodiversity may arise as a result of infection occurring in endangered bird populations."

Compare this with the Ministry of Health's wimpish "National Health Emergency Plan: Infectious Diseases", which was updated last July to deal with the possibility of bird flu: "While it is unlikely that the spread of influenza can be halted, there are options to slow transmission".

Now you tell me: when this flu bug comes buzzing round the Mangere airport, which department would you want guarding the door? Even if it means we all have to pretend to be animals - though not, I suggest, a chook - for the duration.

My sudden obsession with bird flu was sparked by the hacking cough of a fellow passenger on the bus home the other night. As each hack sprayed through the bus, I found myself holding my breath until the wave of germs passed by and cursing my laziness in not walking.

Then came the news reports of Nature magazine's special edition on avian flu. Scary stuff and, because of the gravity of the situation, free to read at Tens of millions dead within months and the global economy in tatters, it suggested, arguing: "A Hollywood fantasy? No - it's now plausible."

As far as protection and prevention went, Nature suggested we're on our own. Though the international community could, if it put its mind to it, zap every suspect chicken in Asia and stop the disease in its tracks, the message was that world leaders were too busy chasing Koran-waving fanatics to concentrate on defeating the real killer in our midst.

Down here, with no vaccine yet available, the Health Ministry is busy stockpiling 800,000 courses of an anti-viral drug, Tamiflu, which, it is hoped, will prevent infection of the healthy and reduce the severity of the flu in those already infected.

Half of this order should be here by the end of July and the rest by October. The 800,000 treatments should just about cover Auckland's needs, but it does seem a bit unfair that the rest of the country will miss out, particularly as this new strain of influenza is likely to infect everyone who comes into contact with it.

Personally, I'd take a much more MAF-ish approach. At the first sign of trouble overseas, I'd close the borders and sit it out behind the best thing going for us - our remoteness. I'd also quarantine recent arrivals from infected areas. After all, we're not talking sniffles here.

In March, the Director-General of Health, Dr Karen Poutasi, warned that an influenza pandemic could kill 3700 New Zealanders and hospitalise another 20,000. And that was if only 35 per cent of the population were infected. But it could be a lot worse.

The 1918 "Spanish" flu epidemic killed 6600, 2000 of those Aucklanders. Hospitals had to be set up in schools and at Ellerslie Racecourse. Victoria Park and the Domain's bandstand became temporary morgues. Special trains carried bodies to Waikumete Cemetery for quick burials.

The disease arrived on troopships bringing soldiers back from the Great War. If these had been quarantined, the deadly disease might not have spread as widely, or as quickly.

Let's not repeat that mistake.

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