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Monday, 15 June 2009
Page: 5904

Mr SYMON (3:43 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Health and Ageing. Will the minister advise the House on the latest swine flu developments in Australia and internationally and on the government’s response to date?

Ms ROXON (Minister for Health and Ageing) —I thank the member for Deakin for his question. Obviously amongst Victorian members there is a particular interest, but it is a matter of importance for the whole country. Members of the House may be aware that last Friday the World Health Organisation declared the H1N1 influenza strain a pandemic, the first global pandemic for 40 years. The World Health Organisation’s phase 6 is characterised by community level outbreaks in at least one country in a different World Health Organisation region from the source country—in this case, Mexico. It indicates that there is sustained human-to-human community level transmission.

The WHO’s decision to declare the first pandemic of the 21st century indicates that it is no longer possible to contain the virus in a particular geographical area. There are now nearly 30,000 cases of human swine influenza around the world, with 74 countries affected. The World Health Organisation considers that this pandemic, at least in its early stages, will be of moderate severity. Around the world, and as we are seeing here in Australia, the overwhelming majority of patients experience mild symptoms and will make a rapid and full recovery. This of course is an important factor to be weighed in the public health advice that is being provided to the community.

However, as we also know, the disease has a hard edge with potentially severe complications for people with underlying health conditions such as morbid obesity, respiratory conditions and chronic disease and, like the regular flu, for pregnant women. Increasingly the world’s focus, like our focus, is moving to identifying and treating those most at risk of severe complications. I do need to report to the House that we have heard the first reports in the media, as yet unconfirmed, of the first death in the United Kingdom, which would be the first death outside the Americas, underscoring the point that this disease can have severe consequences, although it is expected to be mild to moderate in most.

Australia has about six per cent of the world’s confirmed cases. Here in Australia as at 12 noon today there were 1,762 confirmed cases—1,210 in Victoria, 191 in New South Wales, 116 in Queensland, 63 in South Australia, 66 in Western Australia, 32 in Tasmania, 53 in the ACT and 31 in the Northern Territory. There are 10 people currently in hospital, three of whom are in intensive care. The hospitalised have generally been those people with existing conditions or complications such as morbid obesity and respiratory conditions. A number of schools and childcare centres are closed around the country, particularly in those states other than Victoria that are still in the ‘contain’ phase.

Australia’s current approach to swine flu is consistent with the World Health Organisation’s recommendation that countries should now focus on treating those who are ill, providing guidance to people to protect themselves, closely monitoring the disease and adjusting the response to local conditions. This is what is already occurring in Australia and underpins the government’s public health advice to the community. In particular, this is consistent with what is occurring in Victoria, with that state on a modified ‘sustain’ alert level. I need to advise the House that we continue to give ongoing consideration to the appropriateness of Australia’s national alert level. The rest of the country remains at ‘contain’, where efforts are continuing with a focus on slowing the spread of the disease, which is why we are still seeing school closures in states other than Victoria. Of course, this is something that will continue to be reviewed day by day and hour by hour on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer as well as the Australian Health Protection Committee and the National Pandemic Emergency Committee.

I do need to flag that, as the number of cases in Australia steadily increases, the government, in conjunction with the states and territories, will give further consideration to moving to a consistent alert level across Australia and to modifying our response to take account of the increasing number of cases in our community and the moderate severity to date. In particular, we will continue to carefully monitor the extent of community transmission—that is, cases with no known contact with other confirmed cases. From the data over the weekend the majority of cases outside Victoria can still be traced back to known contacts with other confirmed cases. But this is changing, and we will continue to monitor it closely over the coming days.

I take this opportunity to remind Australians that the World Health Organisation and the government do not recommend the closure of any borders or travel restrictions during the pandemic. But the community must be aware that Australians travelling abroad are required to adhere not only to the laws of other countries but also to their health and quarantine arrangements. The Smartraveller website provides advice to this effect for those who are considering travel overseas.

Although Australians are being encouraged to continue to undertake normal day-to-day activities, I know this is going to be difficult for some people, particularly as the consequences of voluntary exclusion from school and school closures have an impact on family life. These school measures are being maintained in states in the ‘contain’ phase as an agreed, effective way to slow the spread of the disease in the community.

I want to take the opportunity to again thank the public, and parents in particular, for their forbearance in this difficult period, which we know can cause family inconvenience. I would also like to take the opportunity to again thank doctors and other health officials for their ongoing efforts and attention in a pandemic which is going to continue to add a significant burden to their already demanding roles.