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Transcript of press conference: H1/N1 influenza, politicians travel.



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THE HON NICOLA ROXON MP MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGEING

TRANSCRIPT OF PRESS CONFERENCE

E &OE - PROOF ONLY

Subjects: H1/N1 influenza, politicians travel     NICOLA ROXON: Thank you very much for coming today. I just want to give you an update on the H1N1 influenza situation.

Obviously at the start of this outbreak, we were providing those updates nearly daily. We've moved now to doing that more on a weekly basis as the developments obviously are changing and our State and Territory colleagues are updating you on the difficult announcements when there have been deaths in their jurisdictions.

But I thought it was a good opportunity to allow you the opportunity to ask questions and to give you a quick update. The publicly confirmed cases of H1N1 influenza across the country now has reached 4568.

There are currently 60 people who are hospitalised. Two of those are in New South Wales, 37 in Victoria, three in Queensland, three in South Australia, none currently in Western Australia, one in Tasmania, three in the ACT, 11 in the Northern Territory.

Cumulatively there've been 371 people hospitalised with the H1N1 swine flu. As we've been noting previously, those people who are hospitalised generally have had existing complications or conditions such as morbid obesity or respiratory conditions.

Sadly, we have now had nine deaths in Australia; seven in Victoria, one in South Australia although that was a person from Western Australia and another in Western Australia.

We do see the number of cases and the fatalities rising around the world. There are now over 77,000 confirmed cases worldwide, 332 deaths. And, of course, we are watching closely the spread of the disease and the hospitalisations here in Australia as well as developments overseas.

One hundred and sixty-five out of our 4568 cases have identified as Indigenous. We're not entirely confident that covers all of the instances. Not each jurisdiction has been breaking down both the cases or those who have

been hospitalised.

So to the best of our knowledge, nine out of the 371 who have been

hospitalised have identified as Indigenous. That's around five per cent of the hospitalisations comparing to about 2.5 per cent of Australia's population.

What we know, of course, in the protect phase that the whole country is now in, is that it's our job to focus particularly on identifying and treating those people who are at risk of serious complications.

We know that those people with chronic diseases are at highest risk and, of course, Indigenous Australians do feature heavily amongst those who will have those chronic diseases.

The Health Protection Committee, that have been meeting regularly throughout this process - headed by the deputy secretary of my department, of course, attended by Professor Bishop and the chief health officers from around the country - have been meeting regularly, are meeting today and tomorrow to discuss again the latest developments and particularly to look at any additional steps that might need to be taken in Indigenous communities.

You will be aware of reports from Victoria of the death overnight of a three year old boy. The Department of Human Services in Victoria has advised that this young boy died on 26 June and, of course, the death of any child is a tragedy.

Given that I understand coronial and police investigations are ongoing, I don't think it would be appropriate for me to comment further on this case. I did want to make sure, however, that I add my voice to the others to confirm for parents that in the vast majority of cases, swine flu will be mild.

Most people, including children, will experience very mild symptoms and recover without any medical intervention. But, of course, parents should be on the look out for any serious symptoms, particularly any indications the child might be having difficulty with their respiratory system, difficulty breathing, to make sure that they do seek medical advice.

Some good news. We've received information today from CSL about the trial of their vaccine is about to commence in Adelaide. CSL has just issued a press release indicating that they'll be calling for volunteers, healthy adults aged between 18 and 64, to participate in this trial in Adelaide.

They'll need to be people that can attend for appointments and will be happy to have the vaccine and, of course, the blood tests to check the response. This is an important part of the development of the vaccine, to ensure that it's

safe for human use and that the dosage is right for a rollout across the community.

And we understand from those developments that the trial will, as I say, commence in mid-July and that it means as soon as September or October that the vaccine might be available for distribution across the community.

Lastly, before I open up to questions, we have started receiving the results

from the community surveillance, the sentinel testing that's been introduced as part of moving to the protect phase.

We've got information from pathology labs across the country. To date we've received information from more than 3000 tests and this sample so far has indicated that at about a quarter of these tests were positive for Influenza A. And about two-thirds of these Influenza A positive tests subsequently tested positive for H1N1 influenza '09. Depending on quickly you can do your maths, that means that about one in six tests overall are testing positive for swine flu.

The remaining third tests are positive for seasonal influenza. We haven't seen any indication through this testing yet of significant mutation of the virus or the emergence of any anti-viral resistance strain and, obviously that's one of - two

of the important things that will be checked regularly with the results of this sentinel testing.

We'll continue to monitor the situation closely to see if there are any changes in the disease and we'll continue to work closely with the States and Territories to improve the depth and quality of our surveillance information.

I think that's about all I have to report, but I'm happy to answer any questions that people might have.

QUESTION: Can you understand why there's this three year old boy and it's the only case where there's been no underlying health issues that have actually been reported? Why parents would be concerned about that, that isn't it better potentially to say that he might have had a medical history, to just at

least put parents' fears at ease?

NICOLA ROXON: Well, I think when there are police and coronial enquiries being undertaken, it's simply not appropriate for me to be able to make comments on the particular case.

I think people would understand that, that there are a range of factors in any death that might need to be considered. And I think we've seen clearly and been able to assure parents that, for the vast majority of children, they will

have very mild symptoms. They will recover quickly and I do want to assure people that they should not be unduly alarmed. This is a serious disease. It can be severe in some people.

We do need to be careful but it is mild overall for most people and I think - I really can't say any more than that for this particular case.

QUESTION: Could you point out whether it is - there was a pre-existing condition without actually speaking about what that condition is? At least then we know that it's something that's influenced...

NICOLA ROXON: Well, I can absolutely understand why the media and the community would ask. Unfortunately, as politicians, we are caught in a position often of, one, respecting people's privacy. You know from some of the

other deaths that have been reported that families have specifically asked that information not be provided. You would also understand that when there are police and coronial investigations in place that it's also not appropriate for politicians to be speculating.

From public health terms, we may well want to be able to provide some of that extra information but we simply are not able to in this situation.

QUESTION: You've said nine deaths. As far as I knew this morning, it was eight with six in Victoria and now there's seven in Victoria. Is there something I don't know about or is it two yesterday?

NICOLA ROXON: I think there was - that's right, there was two yesterday. So seven is the total in Australia - in Victoria. I can take you through each of those but there were two yesterday, both the three year old boy and the 68

year old Victorian man. And that followed from, of course, the other instances that have already been reported but I can take you through each of those if you want me to.

QUESTION: Are children classified as part of the vulnerable group of people?

NICOLA ROXON: Not as a general group, no. What we do know from this disease is that it has a preference for young, healthy people. We've seen that from overseas and, by and large, I think the average age for the first many thousands of cases was 15 or 16.

In some of the early deaths around the world, 20, 30, 40 year olds seemed to be particularly at risk. The risk factors that we're advising the community to be aware is actually the underlying chronic diseases.

We do know that children can have those diseases, can have asthma and diabetes. Obviously we have particularly put an alert for those with respiratory conditions, the morbidly obese. They tend to be slightly older people.

And we know that the very young haven't been flagged as particularly at risk although the very young and very old are always at risk from seasonable flu and, again, can be vulnerable from this type of disease.

QUESTION: The clinical trial period seems to take several months but CSL have said that there's a number of trigger points throughout the process where the Government can step in and say we can release the vaccine now, even though the testing isn't complete. How likely is it that the Government will step in early to release the vaccine?

NICOLA ROXON: Well look, I think CSL have been, in their public comments, quite premature on a number of occasions, perhaps even cheeky on a number of occasions in suggesting that the Government is in any way hindering this process.

We placed our orders early. We have an arrangement with them to fast track any of the TGA approvals that are needed but we would not be in a position that we would approve an untested vaccine for release, whatever commercial factors might be taken into account.

Of course, at some point around the world, this vaccine will be proved to be safe and there will be a tipping point if it is proved to be sufficiently safe and perhaps the fatality rate is increasing, that all governments around the world would make a decision whether it was appropriate to use that vaccine.

But I certainly have no intention of doing anything that might put the broader community at risk and we need this trial process to be undertaken.

QUESTION: So the original estimate that the vaccine would be available at the end of July or early August clearly isn't going to be met. Why were we told that it would be July or August?

NICOLA ROXON: You'll have to put those questions to CSL and other manufacturers. I think…

QUESTION: Was this the Government that was…

NICOLA ROXON: Well, no I think we made it quite clear in all of those that they were the earliest possible times that would be available. We've always made clear that the testing had to be done.

It's a novel disease. We know that there is an inherent unpredictability in the way that a vaccine can be developed. It requires a number of break throughs at each stage and certainly, in my comments, I've made clear that that was the earliest time we thought it was likely to be available.

This is not work that the Government itself undertakes. It's our obligation to make sure that we do everything to allow it to be undertaken as quickly and safely as possible. But you would have to ask the manufactures, CSL and others, who are also working on the vaccine around the world.

QUESTION: Why are the police investigating the case of the three year old boy?

NICOLA ROXON: Well, look, it's not appropriate for me to make those comments. I know you've had the Premier out commenting. It is a matter that both the police and the Victorian Coroner are involved with.

As the Federal Health Minister, I'm not privy to that information but I can assure you that, of course, we are concerned when any child dies. We, from a public health perspective, will make sure that everything that we need to know is known.

But at this stage with the police and coronial investigation under place, I simply can't make any further comments.

QUESTION: We have a story in the UK of mothers organising swine flu parties similar to, say, chickenpox parties and getting their kids together so they can catch the swine flu. Medical experts in the UK are saying this is a terrible idea. Would you agree?

NICOLA ROXON: Well, certainly that's the medical advice that we have too. This is not a clever thing to be doing. It might seem like it's a good way to protect your child. But with a new disease, where really we don't know how it will develop, where we know that some people are particularly at risk, seeking to spread this disease more quickly than it otherwise would is just putting more people at risk.

We've put a lot of effort in Australia into delaying the entry of the disease into the country and then containing it as much as possible. We are now in the early identification and treatment phase.

But remember you might not expect your family or your child to be at risk but your neighbour or your elderly parents or others might be and we shouldn't do anything to hurry up the spread of this disease that can have serious consequences for some people. QUESTION: Front page of The Age had a story on political travel perks for ex-pollies and widows of pollies…

NICOLA ROXON: I'm not trying to be an ex-pollie at the moment. So I'm not sure I'm really qualified for this one.

QUESTION: Well, they're saying the system's being rorted. Do you believe the system's being rorted?

NICOLA ROXON: Well I, like others, have read the reports in the paper. This is a system that's been in place for many, many years. I understand the first time [indistinct] in place from, sort of, 1915 or 1918.

I have to say, I read it with a little surprise as someone who travels a lot within Australia but hasn't been overseas for work at all since I've been a minister, that does seem to add up to a fair amount.

But let's remember that this is something that's available for people with over 20 years of service. It's been in place for a long time. A lot of these people are using their travel to provide other ongoing public involvement and I really don't have anything more to comment on it.