In the wake of Ebola and Zika, New Zealand needs to beef-up its pandemic planning and readiness to deal with diseases other than influenza, say public health researchers in a paper published today.

The three public health professionals from the University of Otago say New Zealand’s current emergency plans focus on influenza and have little guidance for emerging infectious diseases – like the recent Ebola and Zika outbreaks. Also the National health Emergency Plan: Infectious Diseases, developed in response to the SARS epidemic in 2003, was now out-of-date leaving the  Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Plan 2010 as the core document.

“The Ministry of Health’s ‘Pandemic Planning and Response’ webpage links only to documents regarding influenza,” point out the authors in an article published today in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health. “However, preparedness for pandemic influenza does not guarantee preparedness for another emerging infectious disease, as demonstrated by the emergence of blood-borne (Ebola) and vector-borne (Zika) threats in recent years.”

The trio point out that ‘emerging infectious diseases’ have caused the highest death rate pandemics in history including the plague, the pandemic influenza of 1918/19 and HIV.

Outbreaks of emerging infectious diseases have also been on the increase since 1940 with many caused by zoonotic diseases (diseases that can be transmitted from animals to people) while at the same time antimicrobial resistance is increasing worldwide in what has been described as a “slow-motion tsunami”.

Recommendations in the article for New Zealand health authorities include:

  • Implementing an antimicrobial resistance plan (including strengthened collaboration between human and animal health sectors)
  • Developing laboratory capacity for highly pathogenic organisms (ideally with shared planning and capacity building with Australia to maximise cost-effectiveness).
  • Developing real time surveillance beyond notifiable diseases and influenza.
  • Developing or adopting a framework to cover prevention, detection and response to a broad range of emerging infectious diseases, especially those with greatest potential to spread in our region.
  • Conducting regular exercises to test plans for emerging infectious diseases other than pandemic influenza (but additional exercises on pandemic influenza are still warranted, e.g. every 5–10 years).
  • Undertaking regular joint external assessments of IHR (International Health Regulations) core capacities both in New Zealand, and assisting low- and middle-income countries in the Pacific Region to undergo assessments and develop their capacities.

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