Avoid potential virus 'export' to Pacific, experts urge

With the arrival of another potentially lethal virus in New Zealand almost inevitable, health experts there are urging the Government to work to stop its spread to the Pacific. 

Against the backdrop of Samoa's recent raging measles epidemic, which was likely imported from New Zealand, the region is on high alert that the novel coronavirus originating in China could arrive before countries have measures in place to contain its spread.

“If this new coronavirus does become established in New Zealand we should work with Pacific nations to consider exit screening or even suspecting air flights from New Zealand to give them more time to prepare for this epidemic,” a Professor of Public Health at the University of Otago, Dr. Michael Baker said.

Dr. Baker has called on his Government to keep watch on the potential for a “devastating” outbreak in the region.

In neighbouring Australia, a 21-year-old Sydney university student became the fifth person in the country to be diagnosed with the coronavirus after flying back from Wuhan, China.

Disease prevention measures do exist, and could work in favour of the islands around New Zealand. Dr. Helen Petousis-Harris, a vaccinologist from the University of Auckland said New Zealand had the tools to control measles but did not use them. 

The National Verification Committee for Measles and Rubella Elimination, a national measles prevention body, told the country to vaccinate travellers against measles at borders in July, but that suggestion was not taken up. 

During the measles epidemic and state of emergency throughout, Samoa did not restrict travellers coming from New Zealand or any other country where measles was present, following international advice that it was not effective in light of the incubation period.

Over 5000 Samoans recovered from measles, but are suffering damaged immune systems as a result and are more susceptible to disease.

The New Zealand Science Media Centre’s Siouxsie Wiles said as the number of cases in China increase, so does the likelihood of a case landing in New Zealand. 

But that is not just cause for panic yet, she says

“The chances of us seeing an outbreak like that happening in China is very low,” she wrote.

“That’s because we don’t have the same population density as China and are in a good position to be able to identify and isolate infected people, and annoying they have had contact with to stop the infection spreading.”

But people need to take common sense precautions to avoid potential spread, especially with the virus showing a 10 to 14 day incubation period with no symptoms.

Speaking to the Samoa Observer, virologist from the University of Queensland Dr. Ian Mackay said two weeks is plenty of time for someone to travel the world appearing healthy, get through customs and only become ill once they are back home, or at work, or at school.

But he does not advocate for a drastic reduction in travel, saying the economic impacts can be too wide reaching. 

Rather, restricting travel from the epicentre of the virus, Wuhan in Hubei Province, China, and other areas in China with known widespread transmission of the disease rather than a few cases, is advisable. 

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