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Tests confirm at least three have swine flu in NZ

By agencies, NZ Herald staff

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Tests have "unfortunately" confirmed at least three New Zealanders have tested positive to swine flu, Health Minister Tony Ryall announced tonight.

Melbourne tests on 10 Rangitoto College students who tested positive for influenza A came back from the World Health Organisation (WHO) laboratory tonight, confirming three positives to swine flu.

"Unfortunately tonight we can confirm New Zealanders have tested positive to swine flu," Mr Ryall said.

Tests on a fourth sample were continuing, Director of Public Health Mark Jacobs told reporters.

He said three samples all tested positive for the same strain of swine flu. A further sample was being retested.

Director of Public Health, Dr Mark Jacobs announced tonight that results from some of the Rangitoto College party who tested positive to Influenza A on Sunday, have also tested positive for Swine Flu H1N1.

Results from three of the samples were received earlier this evening from the World Health Organization regional laboratory in Melbourne and all tested positive for the same strain of Swine Flu. Testing continues on a fourth sample.

On the basis of these results, we are assuming that all of the people in the group who had tested positive for Influenza A have Swine Flu. As a result we are continuing with the current treatment which has been based on this assumption.

We were advised that the lab in Melbourne selected four of the best samples of the very delicate genetic material to analyse. They found three positive results and one is still to be confirmed.

Staff from Auckland Regional Public Health are getting in touch with those affected and informing them of the results.

This is expected to be completed by 10:00pm tonight.

All ten are understood to be recovering at home.

There is no need to change the treatment and follow-up of the Rangitoto College group.

The Tamiflu treatment will continue and they will remain in home isolation and should complete 72 hours of Tamiflu before they can return to normal activities.

The Rangitoto students returned to Auckland on Saturday from a trip to Mexico. An 11th member of the group has also tested positive for influenza A.

The test results were announced in Wellington tonight, at a press conference attended by Mr Ryall, Director-General of Health Stephen McKernan, Mr Jacobs, and National Co-ordinator Emergency Planning Steve Brazier.

Mr Ryall made a ministerial statement when Parliament sat at 2pm, and told MPs all 10 of the students were recovering.

Mr Ryall told Parliament another 56 people nationwide were being monitored and were being tested to find out whether they had influenza A.

He told Parliament the measures that were being taken were fully justified.

"Officials are ready for any escalation in the domestic or international swine flu situation," he said.

"This is a threat that New Zealand has planned for. Many of the best people in the health service are working night and day to protect the health of New Zealanders."

Mr Ryall said the initial response had been rapid, thorough and appropriate for the level of risk at the time.

* On Saturday morning, flight NZ1 arrived in Auckland from Los Angeles at 5am. On board were the Rangitoto College group which had visited Mexico.

* Their teacher insisted those with flu symptoms contact their doctor and at 12.30pm one of the doctors contacted Auckland Regional Public Health Service.

* The Auckland public health response centre was activated by 3pm and by 6pm a team of nurses was assessing the Rangitoto group. All were treated with Tamiflu and isolated with their families by 10pm.

* On Sunday night testing revealed the Rangitoto 10 had influenza A. Ministry officials decided they should be treated as probably cases of swine flu.

Mr Ryall said nearly all the passengers on NZ1 had been traced, assessed and offered Tamiflu as a precaution.

The WHO today raised its pandemic alert level to phase 4, indicating a significant increased risk of a pandemic, a global outbreak of a serious disease.

Meanwhile efforts are continuing to trace 18 passengers from the flight whose contact details were unclear.

Swine flu - a strain of influenza A - is suspected of causing at least 149 deaths in Mexico and infecting nearly 2000. Cases have also been reported in the United States, Canada, Spain and France.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has posted a health warning for Mexico, California and Texas. It is advising people travelling to those places to take precautionary measures which include getting a seasonal flu vaccine, washing their hands regularly and covering coughs and sneezes.

MFAT also advises anyone who has recently travelled to Mexico or the US and who develops flu-like symptoms to seek medical attention immediately.

The WHO this morning raised its pandemic alert for swine flu by one level, two steps short of declaring a full-blown pandemic.

Click here for latest updates on swine flu

Mr Ryall said the WHO had indicated a rise to level five was imminent.

Click here for the Ministry of Health's influenza pandemic action plan.

He said the organisation had also advised it would be six to eight months before a vaccine could be made to battle the virus.

Suspected cases of swine flu in New Zealand are being treated with the anti-viral drug Tamiflu, which has been shown to be effective. Seasonal flu jabs will not work against swine flu.

Health officials are still trying to contact 18 of the 364 passengers that travelled with the group on Air New Zealand flight NZ1, which arrived in Auckland from Los Angeles on Saturday at 5am.

A team of about 25 people had been working on tracing travellers.

All would be offered the flu medicine Tamiflu and asked to stay at home for several days and those they had had contact with would be dealt with as well, Mr Ryall said.

Anyone who had returned from the United States or Mexico in the past two weeks and displayed flu-like symptoms should be in touch with their general practice, he said.

But Mr Ryall said many New Zealanders would be getting the flu soon because it is the season for flu and those patients should respond in the way they normally would.

Northcote cleared

Three people from Northcote College who returned to New Zealand at the weekend after visiting Mexico with 15 others were this morning cleared of influenza A.

The trio had been exhibiting flu-like symptoms and there were fears they may have been infected.

Ministry of Health emergency planning coordinator Steve Brazier said officials were nevertheless continuing to trace all passengers on their Air New Zealand flight NZ5, which returned early on Saturday.

Potential swine flu cases are also being monitored nationwide, including in Auckland, Hamilton, Nelson, Canterbury and Otago.

Those who may have had contact with members of the potentially infected Rangitoto group include teenagers who played soccer with one of the students on Saturday, before the risk of infection was known.

The student played an afternoon under-17 first division match for his East Coast Bays team against Oratia United and the web of possible exposure expanded when a substitute in that match then played, for his own East Coast Bays team, against North Force at Whangarei on Sunday in the under-17 metropolitan league.

Authorities alerted

Health authorities say they were notified by two doctors about midday on Saturday of the first case of illness among the Rangitoto group.

This led to the wider investigation and subsequent tests and home isolation of the group and their families.

Mr Hodge said his 3050-student school would take every possible precaution against spreading the potentially deadly disease.

Parents had been asked to keep their children home from school if they had been in close contact with any of the 25 people from the trip, and nurses at the school health centre had also screened some pupils.

Mr Hodge said two of the students who went to Mexico had the flu before they left, and one was among the students tested for swine flu.

Air NZ said last night the crew did not know people on board had flu symptoms.

Its group general manager for international airline services, Ed Sims, said the 18 crew and two staff travelling for work purposes on NZ1 on Saturday had been told to stay at home for up to seven days in accordance with Ministry of Health standard guidelines.

One passenger who was on the same flight as the Rangitoto students, Ian Hooker, said health officials had only contacted him yesterday morning more than 48 hours after the flight had landed.

"We have been placed under quarantine as a result of today and I just can't help wondering whether that couldn't have been done on Sunday given that they knew about it on Saturday," he told Radio New Zealand.

He had been given tamiflu and told to stay in doors for up to seven days as he had no symptoms.

Passenger screening

Health officials are now screening all passengers arriving in New Zealand from North America.

The ministry wants anyone who travelled to Mexico or North America in the past fortnight contact to Healthline on (0800) 611-116 for information. It says they should seek medical advice if they have symptoms such as fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, muscle aches and fatigue.

- NZ Herald

Anyone who has travelled to Mexico or North America in the last fortnight should contact Healthline (0800 611 116) for information. They should seek medical advice if they are displaying flu-like symptoms.

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