NZ makes plans for ebola outbreak

By Martin Johnston

Virologist says spread possible after American on flight to Nigeria adds to toll of 670 from contagious disease

The ebola virus, left, is ravaging parts of West Africa. But could it spread to New Zealand?
The ebola virus, left, is ravaging parts of West Africa. But could it spread to New Zealand?

New Zealand health experts are making contingency plans to manage the ebola virus in case the deadly disease arrives from West Africa.

Fears of the global spread of the virus arose after an American man who was working in West Africa began to have symptoms of the contagious disease while flying to Nigeria, where he died on Friday. There are fears the virus may have spread to others on the flight.
Read more: What is the ebola virus?

The Daily Mail reports Nigerian health authorities have screened 59 people who had contact with the American man of Liberian descent, Patrick Sawyer, but they do not know the exact number of contacts as an airline has refused to hand over the list of names.

More than 670 people have died in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in the current ebola outbreak, which began in Guinea in February.

Britain's chief scientist, Sir Mark Walport, told the Daily Telegraph that diseases such as ebola were a "potential major threat to Britain".

New Zealand virologist Dr Sue Huang, of the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR), said there was a risk of ebola reaching this country.

"Maybe we are a little bit lucky. We don't have huge traffic and travel between West Africa and New Zealand at the moment - but a theoretical risk is there. Just think about the 2009 [influenza] pandemic when we had students from Auckland to Mexico coming back; they carried the virus to New Zealand."

If a traveller arrived and developed symptoms of ebola, there was nowhere safe enough in New Zealand for the testing of bodily samples to isolate the virus, Dr Huang said. The highest level of physical containment accreditation at New Zealand laboratories was level 3+ - at labs owned by ESR and the Ministry for Primary Industries. Level 4 was needed for suspected ebola.

"We will have to forward the sample to a reference lab overseas to deal with that if anything happens - the CDC [Centres for Disease Control and Prevention] in the US or maybe Australia. We have contacted people at the moment so we can prepare if anything happens."

The director of public health, Dr Darren Hunt, said it was very unlikely that ebola would get to New Zealand.

Dr Hunt said the risk of ebola infection for travellers was very low since most infections resulted from direct contact with the body fluids or secretions of infected patients.

Read more about the fatal ebola outbreak here.

- NZ Herald

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