Health boss says it pays to be prepared

By LEE McDOUGALL

PAUL Corben must have been a boy scout when he was a child.

The director of public health for the North Coast Area Health Service believes that it pays to be prepared when it comes to the potential spread of disease ? any disease.

In responding to the Parisbased World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) statement yesterday that Australia, Canada and the United States stood a 'very high' risk of the H5N1 bird flu pandemic reaching their shores, Mr Corben said there were protocols in place and plans being made.

A pandemic is an epidemic (an outbreak of an infectious disease) that spreads worldwide, or at least across a large region.

While Mr Corben did not believe there was any immediate threat of a pandemic outbreak of avian flu on the North Coast, given that there were no reported cases of bird flu in Australia, he said there was a lot of planning happening at a national, State and local level to deal with any pandemic outbreak.

"The trouble with forecasting is that you can be wrong, very wrong or extremely wrong, however there is a lot of concern over the H5N1 strain of avian flu," Mr Corben said.

"We are developing a local North Coast plan which includes identification of fever clinics, if there is widespread concern, as well as planning for vaccination.

"There currently isn't a vaccine but that doesn't mean that there aren't things to be done to reduce your exposure and risk."

Steps include maintaining normal flu and pneumonia vaccinations, basic hygiene including good hand washing practices, 'cough etiquette' and disposing of used tissues quickly and properly.

"We are planning for the possibility that something like this may come along," Mr Corben said.

"If it is not bird flu, it could be some other pandemic. Basic principles and protocols, and well-thought-out responses developed from fighting previously outbreaks such as SARS, can be used for any disease."

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said bird flu has infected 175 people, killing 96 of them, since 2003. Victims contract the virus through close contact with infected birds.

Scientists fear it is only a matter of time before the virus mutates into a form that passes easily among people.

"We have a time lapse before it becomes a human disease and we have to use this time for developing a plan for working on vaccines, stockpiling medicines and for educating people," WHO director general Lee Jong-wook said.

Australia, the US and Canada have so far escaped the spread of the H5N1 strain of avian flu.



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