by Thilaka Ravi on  July 27, 2009 at 4:05 PM Tropical Disease News
 Lessons From Australian Swine Flu Fight
Hard-hit Australia is now a global case study for swine flu, with Europe and the United States watching closely to take tips from Australia as the continent battles the disease in the southern hemisphere winter, experts say.

The outbreak began here in early May as Australia was entering its annual flu season, speeding up infections so much that in a month Melbourne was the world's "swine flu capital" with the highest concentration of cases anywhere.

More than 40 deaths and some 16,000 cases later, Australia's experience with A(H1N1) holds valuable lessons for northern countries contemplating the onset of autumn and winter.

"There's no doubt that the lessons learned from Australia will be useful for overseas," said University of New South Wales epidemiologist William Rawlinson.

"What's happening in Australia now and the evidence that the number of cases of swine flu has significantly increased as winter's become colder is exactly what we expect in the northern hemisphere during their winter.

"So certainly lots of people in the northern hemisphere, Europe and the United States, are very interested in what happens here."

Australia's efforts against the virus have ranged from reminding people to wash their hands to closing schools and planning a mass immunisation programme capable of covering the entire population.

Authorities have also been forced to fine-tune their response as the threat has evolved, concentrating efforts on the most vulnerable groups such as pregnant women and those with existing medical problems.

They have also issued warnings to the disadvantaged Aboriginal community and noted with alarm that the disease starting attacking rising numbers of young, otherwise fit, people.

"Australia has seen you do have to change your response and get that message out to the public and the health community," Rawlinson said. "The issues have to be very clear -- otherwise, people get confused.

"As deaths rise and as critical care becomes more important you have to respond to that, and that's one thing we've done very well in Australia."

The Influenza Specialist Group advisory panel said initial measures to stop the virus spreading, such as monitoring at ports and airports and shutting schools, had proved futile.

"It certainly proved that border protection does not work against this type of virus, although that was not unexpected," the panel's chairman Alan Hampson said.

He added that the disease could become more infectious by the northern hemisphere winter. World health experts fear a repeat of the devastating Spanish and Asian influenza pandemics of 1918 and 1958.

"It requires only a couple of points of mutation to acquire additional transmission capacity -- maybe that's what we're seeing now, we just don't know," Hampson said.

"Maybe by the time it gets to the northern hemisphere this virus will be much more able to spread."

Anne Schuchat, a doctor at the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, said health experts in the country were gathering information from around the world.

"Whether it's here in the United States or in places like Argentina or Australia, there is a way that we handle any types of medical challenges," she told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

With human testing for a swine flu vaccine already underway in Australia, Hampson said northern countries had a big advantage unavailable here going into flu season.

"The northern hemisphere will have a vaccine, which will be a major benefit that we haven't had," he said.

Source: AFP

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