Holiday travel lifts risk of swine flu outbreaks

By Kara Segedin

Health officials are warning of fresh outbreaks of swine flu.

The Ministry of Health is blaming the holidays and more people travelling overseas. However, outbreaks are likely to be small and localised.

Darren Hunt, deputy director of public health, said the virus was fairly active in the Northern Hemisphere, but it was not too different from the normal winter seasonal flu.

As New Zealanders return home from trips abroad, small, localised pockets of the virus should appear, but as it is summer this should help prevent the spread.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the H1N1 strain of flu hit earlier than predicted in the lead-up to winter and the same is expected here.

Health officials are also expecting the resurgence of the virus in late March with a peak in late April or early May.

Mr Hunt anticipated that the influenza expected in autumn would be the same kind of illness, with the same intensity seen earlier this year.

What the ministry does not know is if the virus will change and officials are waiting on further information on the proportion of people in the population who have built up immunity to the influenza.

Mr Hunt said health-care providers were already prepared for a rise in the number of cases and the additional pressure this would place on the health system.

Mr Hunt said they were paying particular attention to intensive care services.

The 2010 seasonal flu vaccine will include the pandemic strain, but it may not be available until mid to late March - the usual annual release time for the drug.

An alternative vaccination with a single H1N1 strain will be on offer from February to health-care workers and those at a higher risk of complications from the illness.

Swine flu first arrived in New Zealand in April, when 10 students from Auckland's Rangitoto College came down with the virus after a class Spanish language trip to Mexico City.

At its peak, the virus closed schools, forced hundreds into quarantine and put pressure on the country's health services.

There have been 20 confirmed deaths from H1N1 in New Zealand with several more possible cases under investigation.

As of December 20, the World Health Organisation reported more than 208 countries and overseas territories had confirmed cases of influenza H1N1 with 11,516 deaths.

* Precautions

Wash and dry your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds.

Cover your cough and sneeze with a tissue, then put used tissues in a bin.

Avoid touching your nose, mouth or eyes. Germs spread that way.

Stay away from other people if you or they are sick.

Reduce time spent in crowded settings.

Regularly clean surfaces such as bathroom sinks, bedside cabinets, desks and table tops.

- NZ Herald

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