Health ministry on high alert as Sars spreads worldwide
The Ministry of Health remains on high alert as
cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) continue to
Health Ministry director of public health
Colin Tukuitonga said today that while no cases had been
reported in New Zealand, the risk that a traveller could bring
the disease into the country remained "a significant threat".
The latest World Health Organisation
(WHO) update yesterday reported 1408 cases and 53 deaths, up
from 1323 cases and 49 deaths as at Wednesday.
"It is extremely concerning to see the
number of cases continue to climb, and we remain on high alert
in New Zealand," Dr Tukuitonga said in a statement.
The ministry had a telephone conference
this morning with representatives from the World Health
Organisation, Communicable Disease Network of Australia,
National Pandemic Planning Committee, medical officers of
health, and viral illness expert networks.
"This review of the situation overseas
and in New Zealand confirmed that our approach at this stage
is appropriate. We will review it again on Monday morning,
unless a development occurs over the weekend to bring that
reanalysis forward," he said.
Dr Tukuitonga said the World Health
Organisation was recommending airport authorities in infected
countries screen all departing passengers.
WHO has recommended the authorities ask
the following questions:
whether passengers have had contact with severe acute
whether passengers have any of the symptoms, including a
high fever and dry cough;
whether any family member had had contact with the
"This enhanced screening of departing
passengers from infected countries should help protect our
country from the disease.
"However, we cannot and are not relying
on this. Airlines travelling to New Zealand will continue to
be vigilant for signs of the symptoms, and we are updating and
increasing the amount of information available to the public,"
Dr Tukuitonga said.
Air New Zealand spokesman Richard Becht
said the airline was working closely with the ministry to
ensure all "prudent precautions" were taken.
"We've had information posters up at the
airports for the last week to advise all arriving passengers.
"Ministry of Health people have been
advising our staff out what they can do to protect themselves.
"The air quality in our cabins is
rigorously monitored, and most bacteria and infections would
be picked up by the system.
"Having said that, the infection is most
likely to be spread by person to person contact, so we have to
be particularly vigilant in ensuring all passengers are fit to
Airline staff had been instructed to
carefully screen boarding passengers for any symptoms.
"We do have the right to prevent people
boarding if we think there's a risk."
Bookings were down slightly, probably due
to the combined threat of the war in Iraq and Sars, he said.
"There has been some softening in forward
bookings; in Asia, we think this is more the influence of SARS
"We will continue to be as vigilant as
possible in terms of the safety of our staff and our
customers, and to be guided by the Ministry of Health."
Dr Tukuitonga said airports were being
sent posters and pamphlets to give arriving international
passengers, and posters would also be distributed next week to
other public places likely to be frequented by overseas
"I would like to stress that there is no
need for the New Zealand public to be alarmed. However, we do
need to be alert," he said.
The Sars website (http:///) and freephone
0800 0800 80 provide the latest information to New Zealanders
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