Five Australians in intensive care with H1N1
By Michael Perry
June 11, 2009
SYDNEY (Reuters) - The World Health Organization is poised to declare a global influenza pandemic after a spike in H1N1 cases in Australia, where five people have been admitted to intensive care units and 1,263 cases of "swine flu" recorded.
But Australian authorities on Thursday defended their handling of H1N1, saying the high number of cases, the overwhelming majority in the southern state of Victoria, was a result of widespread testing and a normal winter flu season.
"We have tested 5,500 people in the last two weeks, that is more people than we test in our whole influenza season," said Victorian state premier John Brumby. "If you test that many people you will find something.
"Elsewhere around the world, in the United States and Canada, they are only testing the most serious cases," said Brumby.
The WHO will hold an emergency meeting of experts on Thursday to discuss the spreading H1N1 flu outbreak, in a sign the U.N. agency may be poised to declare the first pandemic in more than 40 years.
There have been 27,737 cases reported in 74 countries to date, including 141 deaths, according to the WHO's latest tally.
Confirmed community spread in a second region beyond North America would trigger moving to phase 6 -- signifying a full-blown pandemic -- from the current phase 5 on the WHO's 6-level pandemic alert scale.
Australia has the fifth-highest number of H1N1 flu cases worldwide, after the United States, Mexico, Canada and Chile.
Its first H1N1 case was announced on May 9, with a woman in the tropical northern state of Queensland testing positive after returning from Los Angeles.
The number of cases in Australia doubled in the last week, with the bulk of the infections in Victoria.
Victoria has 1,011 H1N1 cases, New South Wales 101, Queensland 68, Western Australia 29, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory have 17 each, Tasmania 13 and the Northern Territory 7, says the national health department.
Australia's government has ordered 10 million doses of swine flu vaccine being developed by pharmaceutical company CSL Ltd.
The country has implemented standard health procedures to stop the spread of H1N1, such as thermal scanning at airports, quarantining those diagnosed and issuing hygiene warnings.
Diagnosis of H1N1 has seen dozens of schools, kindergartens and child care centers closed and parents have been told to quarantine their children if they have visited Victoria.
Australia's government ordered more than 2,000 passengers of a visiting cruise ship in May to isolate themselves after two child passengers were confirmed with H1N1.
Australian swimming officials have canceled a major competition scheduled for Melbourne on June 20-21 due to H1N1. Roughly half of Australia's squad for the world championships in Rome this year had been expected to compete at the event.
An entire state rugby league team was quarantined after one of their players contracted the virus in Melbourne.
Health authorities say the spread of H1N1 is a result of the fact that Australia has just entered its winter flu season, unlike the northern hemisphere.
LACK OF CO-ORDINATION
But some health experts say Australian authorities have failed to control the spread of H1N1 due to a lack of co-ordination between national and state health officials.
"There has been a lack of education and a lack of co-ordination between states and the national government," said James Schluter, a biochemist with law firm Holding Redlich.
"The message given to people was that this was not a serious disease and people have not complied with quarantine guidelines. People have gone to work sick. People have not taken it seriously," Schluter told Reuters.
"Containment problems have seen a lack of conformity with quarantine. Shutting down schools without plans for home schooling has seen kids pushed back into the community and spreading the flu," he said.
Australia's failure to contain the flu was highlighted by the fact the country has an infection rate higher than any other country outside North America, said Schluter.
"We always expected Australia would bear the brunt because we are the first to enter the flu season. Because health screening at the border relied on an honor system, swine flu was inevitable in Australia," he said.
But Victoria's Brumby insisted the spread of H1N1 in Australia was a result of a normal flu season.
"All the medical advice is that it is the normal seasonal flu. Like any flu season some people if they have some chronic illness can be in danger," said Brumby.
"We are no different in our level of community incidents than most other places in the world."
Brumby said many more Australians probably have H1N1 but have not been diagnosed because the strain of flu has been mild.
(Editing by Valerie Lee)