An influenza pandemic occurs when a new strain of influenza virus emerges, spreads around the world and infects many people at once. An influenza virus capable of causing a pandemic is one that people have no natural immunity to, can easily spread from person to person, and is capable of causing severe disease. It is much more serious than a common cold and can leave a person ill for up to 10 days.
There is increasing concern internationally about the impact of new emerging infectious diseases, such as the avian influenza virus and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2003. It is certain another influenza pandemic will happen one day.
Symptoms of the flu include: a high fever, headache, muscle aches and pains, fatigue, cough and sore throat. It may take up to three days to feel symptoms after a person catches the flu (the incubation period). Anyone can get the flu – being fit, active and healthy does not protect people from getting this virus. Anyone can die from the flu – it kills at least 100 New Zealanders every year, including some young, fit people. However in a pandemic event up to a third of the population may be affected which would have an impact on workplaces, schools, hospitals and many other services. Some workplaces and schools may close. Normal health and other services may not be available for several weeks. People may be asked to care for themselves and others at home.
An influenza pandemic has the potential to overwhelm existing health services and significantly affect the functioning of the Hawke’s Bay community. It would cause significant illness and loss of life throughout the area, quickly overwhelming emergency services. For example, it is expected that Hawke’s Bay could experience approximately 59,000 people becoming clinically unwell and up to 298 deaths over a two to three month period in an influenza pandemic.
The Hawke’s Bay District Health Board is the lead agency for managing any outbreak of infectious disease affecting the people of Hawke’s Bay. The District Health Board and the Medical Officer of Health’s powers to manage and control these events when they occur are found in the Health Act 1956, the Health (Infectious and Notifiable Diseases) Regulations 1966 and (if passed) the Law Reform (Epidemic Preparedness) Bill 2006. If New Zealand were affected by a human pandemic event it is likely a state of national emergency would be considered.
There have been three influenza pandemics in the last century: in 1918, in 1957/58 and in 1968/69.
Doctors and nurses struggled to cope with the numbers sick with pandemic influenza in 1918 (Photo courtesy of HBDHB)
It was in 1918 that the most significant pandemic swept New Zealand with grim results. Known as the ‘Spanish Flu’ (although the infection did not begin in Spain) it was a world-wide catastrophe, and in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Australia it was estimated that 720,000,000 were affected, with a death toll of 21,000,000. In New Zealand in the summer months of 1918–19 the deaths from influenza were in excess of 8,500. A total of 6,413 Europeans died, and Maori fatalities were estimated at over 2,160. In Hawke’s Bay it is estimated that 352 people died, while in Auckland 1,163 died and in Wellington 773 died. The disease spread rapidly in urban areas, and in a matter of months accounted for more lives than those lost from influenza and associated ailments in the preceding 46 years. People became unwell very quickly, sometimes collapsing within a matter of hours, and even dying the same day. There were no flu vaccinations available and no antibiotics for those who fell ill.
In May 1957 the first influenza pandemic since the Great Flu of 1918 occurred, known as the Asian flu it began in China. By May 1958 it had spread worldwide. Infection rates were reported to range from 20-70 percent but fatalities were low ranging from 1 in 2000 to 1-10,000 infections. In New Zealand the pandemic began in Wellington in August 1957. The most at risk were people aged from 10-30 years. A second wave hit in late 1959.
In July 1968 the most recent pandemic occurred, known as the Hong Kong flu and again thought to have originated in China, it reached New Zealand in early 1969. Sporadic cases were reported during summer and autumn and it reached pandemic levels in June and July. This event was milder than 1918, causing around one million deaths worldwide.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Every year, ask your doctor to vaccinate you against the flu. Because the influenza virus changes frequently, you need to get vaccinated every year to maintain immunity. Some people can get this free. Vaccination is free for people aged 65 years and over, and adults and children with certain long-term (chronic) conditions. Your General Practitioner (GP) will know if you are eligible for a free vaccination.
The flu is very easily spread through coughs and sneezes. If you have the flu, avoid public places and close contact with other people. Always cough and sneeze into a disposable tissue. Put the tissue in a rubbish bin and wash and dry your hands well afterwards.
Learn more about influenza pandemic or visit the Ministry of Health website.