Wairarapa health authorities have contingency measures in place in case a new mutated bird flu strain reaches our shores.



Scientists in Wellington are testing for a new strain of the influenza virus which has caused nine deaths in China.



Wairarapa District Health Board manager of regional public health Peter Gush said they were monitoring national and international information regarding the virus and were well prepared should it reach New Zealand.



"Our experience with the swine flu pandemic in 2009 is still fresh in the minds of many, and our local contingency plans are updated on a regular basis."

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Contingency measures included maintaining stocks of anti-viral medication and personal protective equipment for healthcare workers. Should a case be present in the Wairarapa, the public health service would respond by tracing anyone identified as having come into contact with that person, Mr Gush said.



"Whether the affected person is treated at hospital or at home, strict hygiene measures like social distancing, masks and gloves are put in place to help prevent spread. We would be part of a national response that is described in the national Pandemic Plan."



The World Health Organisation National Influenza Centre (WHO NIC) in Wellington is monitoring the spread of the A (H7N9) virus and planning New Zealand's response.



WHO NIC director Dr Sue Huang said following contingency planning for the 2009 pandemic, New Zealand had a "robust response plan" for any potential outbreak.



"We are in contact with our international colleagues to learn more about this new strain as well as providing precautionary monitoring for any sign of the virus here.



"As a precaution this laboratory will be investigating samples from any patients with severe acute respiratory infections that are positive for certain strands of influenza A."



Dr Huang said the new virus differed from the seasonal flu virus as the new strain had yet to be contracted between humans.



The 2013 seasonal influenza vaccine for the Southern Hemisphere included two new strains based upon WHO recommendations and also protects against the H1N1 or swine flu virus.

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As of April 9, 7680 Wairarapa residents had been immunised against this year's seasonal winter flu strain, up from 6430 at the same time last year.



The new influenza A (H7N9) virus is a mutation of previous bird flu viruses, though the level of mutation is not yet clear, Dr Huang said.



While no vaccine is currently available, ground work was under way by international scientists.



"They are working through and trying to find a candidate for the vaccine strain.



"It's very important because you have to prepare in case this virus eventuates to be a pandemic virus - then you have to move on very quickly."



Latest updates show 21 cases of the virus have been confirmed in China, including six deaths, 12 severe cases and three mild cases. They are the first known cases of A (H7N9) infecting humans. It normally circulates among wild birds and poultry.



The anti-influenza drugs Tamiflu and Relenza can still be used to treat the new virus, as well as seasonal flu strains, Dr Huang said.



Those travelling to China should take Tamiflu medication with them in case they develop flu-like symptoms. However, people should not worry about stockpiling the drug here as the virus had yet to progress to human-to-human transmission.



A seven-day course of Tamiflu cost around $70, she said.