An outbreak of swine flu at a Hawke's Bay orchard has doctors concerned and is pushing an already stretched seasonal fruit picking workforce in Hawke's Bay closer to breaking point.

Hawke's Bay District Health Board's medical officer of health Nick Jones said as of Tuesday just under 100 fruit pickers in the region had experienced flu-like illness.

With more than 4000 seasonal workers in Hawke's Bay, Dr Jones said there was "certainly potential" for the numbers to increase.

"We are working very hard to try and make sure the infection is not spread among the different employers and different sites where people live."


It is the first time the Hawke's Bay DHB has seen an outbreak of this kind among workers during the summer months.

Jone said they had heard about people other than seasonal workers who had presented to their doctor with flu-like symptoms, but tests done did not show the H1N1 strand.

A pandemic in 2009 raised fears about the virus. But 10 years on, Dr Jones said it was still a nasty virus but "most people" in the country had been exposed to it.

"We don't believe the risk to the general population is high at this stage."

Thornhill Horticulture Contracting is now taking extra precautions after 31 of its Pacific seasonal staff presented with influenza-like symptoms and had to stop work - two of whom were hospitalised with confirmed H1N1, known colloquially as swine flu, on Friday.

Managing director Richard Bibby said he expected eight pickers to return back to work in the "next few days", while the other two will remain off this week.

Bibby said he had never experienced an outbreak to this extent.

"Part of our responsibility is obviously for the workers to make sure we've given them plenty of education," Bibby said.


"The Hawke's Bay District Health Board are giving us information on how we minimise the risk with masks, using hand sanitation, regularly showering and changing of towels."

However, the influenza has had an adverse effect on the company, and the industry as a whole is are already struggling with a seasonal labour shortage.

"We are certainly not in as good as shape as what I thought we were going to be. It's now put us under a reasonable amount of pressure because the apples are maturing quickly."

He is hoping to get assistance over the next 10 days of picking.

"Not having 10 workers at work makes a big difference when we are already very short of labour."

A contract with the insurance provider has meant the Hastings Health Centre has provided care for a "large proportion" of the RSE workers.


Clinical Director Dr Andrew Heslop said there was an "outbreak nearly every year" but how early it has come this time makes it unusual.

He said it had even come before the annual flu vaccine was available on April 1.

"We do see patterns of increased influenza throughout the year, but more so in the latter half of the winter."

Heslop said they did not know whether it had spread beyond seasonal workers, adding it was a "concern".

He did not believe other Hastings Health Centre users were likely to have been put at risk.

Heslop speculated the origin of the swine flu likely came from overseas. It could have been Pacific Islands seasonal workers, but could have been from other international travellers or "from one of the cruise ships", he said.


Influenza is highly contagious and people with flu can spread it to others up to two metres away.
If you feel unwell you can help reduce the spread of the virus by:
• Staying at home if you are unwell.
• Covering your cough or sneeze using disposable tissues.
• Regularly washing your hands thoroughly with soap and hot water, and then dry your hands with a clean dry towel or paper towel.
• If you become concerned or your illness is getting worse call your GP or local medical centre or call HealthLine 0800 611 116
* If it's an emergency call 111