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Thursday, 10 March 2005
Page: 68

Senator BROWN (2:58 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Health and Ageing. I ask about the spectre of bird flu in Asia, in particular the strain H5N1. Is the minister aware of predictions from the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention that, if it becomes pandemic, this virus could be 76 per cent fatal compared with the one per cent fatality rate of the Spanish flu in 1918? What preparation has the Australian government made? What spending has been allocated to protect this country and its 20 million citizens from the outbreak of this flu, if it occurs?

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women’s Issues) —I thank Senator Brown for his question. When we had the Bali bombings I was very aware that the health department did not have an incident room. Having come from Immigration, I thought it important that we should have an incident room. We set up an incident room and it was incredibly useful during the SARS virus situation. It was an important factor in us being able to coordinate and bring together the information from the states and to make sure that we had everyone in one centre understanding exactly what was going on. Information was fed in from the Asian region and then was sent out to our health people in the states. That incident room has been upgraded again. It is an important thing to have an incident room that can be brought together at immediate notice.

We have been preparing to respond to an influenza pandemic should the need arise. A pandemic virus, as you say, may develop from the bird flu virus circulating in Asia. Quarantine officers at airports and seaports are maintaining a high level of vigilance for birds and bird products from bird flu affected countries. Australia is the first Southern Hemisphere country, and one of only several world wide, to enter into a contract with influenza vaccine manufacturers for a guaranteed and sufficient pandemic vaccine supply to protect all Australians. In the last budget, funding ensured that the national medicine stockpile now contains sufficient quantities of personal protective equipment and antiviral drugs to protect Australia’s health and emergency workers from infection. These workers will be our first line of defence in responding to a pandemic outbreak either overseas or in Australia.

The Australian government has also provided just over $10 million over four years to improve the nation’s infectious diseases surveillance system. This was an issue that was raised during SARS: we need to improve the surveillance system to enable rapid detection and reporting of infectious diseases so we can actually spot areas of outbreak faster than we would have been able to do otherwise. To support neighbouring countries in their preparation for a pandemic, AusAID, in consultation with the Department of Health and Ageing and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, is developing a program focusing on improving laboratory diagnostic capacity and surveillance of and reporting on emergency preparedness in developing countries in the region. So all in all I think you could say that we have addressed the issues. I believe Australia’s preparations to respond to a pandemic of this nature are among the best in the world.

Senator BROWN —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for her answer. Does the government have an estimate of the potential death toll from a bird flu pandemic within Australia? Is it true that immunisation would take some months; that it would take some months to get an adequate vaccine to the outbreak of such a flu? Would the government put in place some form of quarantine of the country if there were to be an outbreak of flu? Has the government considered an emergency situation like that, where such decisions would have to be made?

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women’s Issues) —With my experience with flu, one of the problems is that the virus can mutate. It is not possible to have stockpiles of vaccines that will protect people against a virus that might mutate. We believe we are as prepared as we possibly can be. I do not believe that we have estimated figures but I will ask the minister for health if we have. But I would have thought that rather than present doom and gloom you might actually have been a bit positive about the very strong measures Australia has taken in facing this issue. Because of what we learnt from SARS and our response to that, we are implementing strong measures. The states and territories also focused more carefully on these issues after the SARS outbreak. But if we have any figures I will get them for you. I will ask Mr Abbott, but I do not know whether there are any or not.

Senator Hill —Mr President, I ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.