New Zealand to prepare for possible flu pandemic

New Zealand could be forced to wait up to six months from the initial outbreak of a global flu pandemic for delivery of an influenza vaccine, a senior health official said Wednesday. While the goal of health authorities was "to keep (flu) out of the country as long as possible" by moves like closing the nation's borders, it would take 15 to 27 weeks for the country's Australian-based supplier to develop, manufacture and deliver the vaccine to New Zealand, according to director of public health Mark Jacobs.

Vaccines effective against a pandemic virus are not yet available, according to the World Health Organization. Although a vaccine against the H5N1 virus is under development in several countries, no vaccine is ready for commercial production and no vaccines are expected to be widely available until several months after the start of a pandemic, the WHO says.

New Zealand has an agreement with the supplier for priority access to 8 million doses of the vaccination, enough to vaccinate the nation's 4 million people twice, Jacobs said.

In an update of the nation's flu pandemic plan, officials noted there will be a delay between the outbreak of a pandemic and the development of a vaccine.

"A vaccine ... won't be able to be produced until that strain is actually identified," the report said.

Jacobs said that the 26 million New Zealand dollars (US$17.8 million; Ђ15.2 million) spent by health planners buying Tamiflu for 1 million New Zealanders in case a bird flu pandemic based on the H5N1 strain occurred could be money wasted.

"It may be wasted ... but it's a waste the World Health Organization has recommended," he said.

Tamiflu, when taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms, makes influenza less severe. Although no one knows whether it would work on a new pandemic strain of the flu, the World Health Organization advises that governments have enough for 25 percent of the population.

Health Minister Pete Hodgson said that New Zealand could close its borders "for a short period" in an effort to prevent a flu pandemic reaching the South Pacific nation.

"New Zealand is a lucky country as the last bus stop on the planet," Hodgson said in a reference to its isolated position in the South Pacific.

Planners believe the flu likely will arrive carried by people on an airplane, and Hodgson said a border closure by Australia or Singapore would probably trigger a local closure.

Closing the borders would primarily allow officials time to gain information about the nature of any possible pandemic, he said. Officials say up to 1.6 million New Zealanders could be infected in a flu pandemic and some 33,000 could die in the first eight weeks of an outbreak.

Health experts worry that the virus could mutate into a form that's easily transmitted between people and spark a global flu pandemic that could kill millions, reports the AP. I.L.

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