Close airports or face pandemic influenza

By Adam Coleman

Recent experiences suggest border security measures will be ineffective in keeping out pandemic influenza and the only effective approach for health officials following an outbreak is to stop international flights from arriving.

That is the view of the Australian Homeland Security Research Centre, a non-partisan think-tank on domestic security.

While the influenza season has been particularly bad this year and the consequences of a seasonal influenza outbreak can be terrible, they are minute when compared with what could happen if there was a worldwide influenza pandemic, says the executive director of the Australian Homeland Security Research Centre, Athol Yates.

“If a pandemic influenza strain did appear overseas, the most important action Australia could take would be to stop it from entering the country.”

He says the Australian Government’s expectation that border control would contain the virus at the borders for a reasonable period of time is unrealistic.

“Closing the airports would leave about one million Australians stranded overseas but it would save tens of thousands of Australian lives at home,” Mr Yates says.

“To be effective, a decision would have to be made within hours of an outbreak of a highly transmittable human to human infection occurring and where it is believed that the disease is not contained in quarantined areas.

According to Mr Yates, the recent horse influenza outbreak indicated that we would have problems making decisions at the required speed.

“You saw it in the racing industry here, do we close it or do we keep going," he says.

"By the time that discussion has gone on for a couple of hours or days, [it’s] too late.”

Mr Yates highlighted a recent examples as evidence that border security measures would be ineffective.

“On 2 July, a passenger infected with polio arrived in Melbourne from Bangkok. The majority of the 238 people on the flight were tracked down quickly and given polio shots or placed in home quarantine," he says.

"However 15 passengers were never located. If the passenger was carrying the pandemic influenza variant, then these unlocatable people would have already introduced the virus into the Australian population.

“The Government needs to exercise this as a scenario to see how quickly [it can respond] and what factors there are in making that judgement call and would they close the airports if it looks like a number of airlines are not going to fly anyway.”

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