Getting ready for bird flu
By Jane Gardner
Sick people would be confined to their homes and schools closed if a bird flu epidemic broke out on the Northern Rivers, under plans being considered by local councils. Ballina, Lismore and Richmond Valley councils have confirmed they are considering their response to a potential bird flu outbreak as fears of a worldwide pandemic escalate.
The confirmation came as scientists in the US announced they had re-created the deadly Spanish flu, which killed 50 million people in 1918, and they had found similarities between it and bird flu.
The Federal Government has also announced it will hold a regional forum on the illness in Brisbane this month.
It also came as the company that makes Tamiflu, the drug used to combat the virus, said it had run out of the drug on the Northern Rivers and it could not be restocked until November.
Ballina Councillor Keith Johnson was among a group of councillors and senior staff to have seen a confidential NSW Health report recommending strategies to deal with a bird flu pandemic on the Northern Rivers.
Cr Johnson said those recommendations included closing schools, confining sick people to their homes, encouraging people to stay away from public places and to stockpile food at the first sign of an outbreak.
Cr Johnson said if residents on the Northern Rivers were unprepared an outbreak would strike 'like a tidal wave'.
"We have to be on top of it or we'll be overwhelmed because it could happen so fast," he said.
"We would ask people to stay away from local contact places, like supermarkets, and at the very earliest sign of an outbreak, stock up with food and produce. Students might be sent home and classes would occur via the Internet and telephone."
Dr Paul Armstrong, medical epidemiologist with NSW Health's Communicable Diseases Branch, said local governments would be responsible for monitoring strategies, with containment being a priority.
"They may tell people who feel ill to stay at home, because potentially there will be a lot of them, and also provide information on how to look after those people."
Dr Armstrong said the official NSW Health plan would be distributed when completed.
"Every 10 to 50 years a serious pandemic outbreak occurs and, judging on averages, the last one was 37 years ago, so we're about due," he said.
"Therefore all levels of government are planning for a pandemic flu outbreak at present."
A spokesperson for Lismore City Council said it had put on extra staff while it restructured its emergency response procedures, which included examining how the council would react in the case of an outbreak.
Richmond Valley Council is considering its response, while Ballina Shire Council is still considering the implications of the briefing on the NSW Health report.
Australia has enough stockpiled Tamiflu to protect about one million essential service workers for six weeks. However, Roche Pharmaceuticals, distributor of Tamiflu, has temporarily run out of supplies on the Northern Rivers until November.