What medicines has the Ministry of Health started stockpiling for the possibility of an influenza pandemic?
I think the member may already know that the Ministry of Health has stockpiled the antiviral medication Tamiflu.
Since most of the victims of the 1918 pandemic died of secondary infections like pneumonia, why have the Ministry of Health and Pharmac not moved to secure greater supplies of antibiotics?
The member asks a very good question. I suggest that when the Health Committee is briefed—I think tomorrow—the member should put that to folk. In the meantime, I offer the proposition that it would probably not be a very good idea to stockpile a lot of antibiotics early, especially when the bug itself is not yet known, simply because the expiry date—
I am trying to get a difficult answer across to a member whose neighbour is not helping. The problem with pre-stockpiling antibiotics is that they often have a short expiry date, and that means that the antibiotics would be wasted.
Why has the Government told district health boards in the recently released New Zealand Influenza Pandemic Action Plan that they should build up their own supplies of Tamiflu in the event of a pandemic rather than rely on the national stockpile; and given that the chances of obtaining Tamiflu at this late stage are very slim indeed, why has the Government waited until now to give them that advice?
It may help the member to know that New Zealand has enough Tamiflu doses for approximately 20 or 21 percent of its population—
It does have enough doses for about 21 percent of the population, which ranks it higher than, I think, almost any other country—with the possible exception of Japan—and which follows World Health Organization guidelines. That is somewhat higher than, for example, the US level, which is around 2 percent. District health boards have not been instructed to carry additional stockpiles, but they are certainly entitled to. On top of that, district health boards have been asked to lay in supplies of personal protection equipment, and because those supplies do not have an expiry date of any consequence they are being laid in now.
Has the Minister secured, or begun to secure, sufficient stockpiles of all essential drugs and medicines, in order to meet the ongoing needs of ordinary New Zealanders if the borders are closed for several weeks during a pandemic?
No, and the reason is that it is a little early. I refer my colleague to my answer to his original question, which was that it is not a good idea to lay in a whole lot of drugs that have an expiry date when we do not yet have a bug capable of human-to-human spread.
Has the Minister received any advice as to whether the Health and Safety in Employment Act and the National Health Emergency Plan: Infectious Diseases could require health workers to take Tamiflu prophylactically, conceivably every day for up to 12 weeks at a time, to offer them protection in the event of a bird flu epidemic; is he aware that if that was the case it could use up about half of New Zealand’s entire national stockpile of Tamiflu?
The short answers are no and yes, although it is the case that we will retain, I am sure, some Tamiflu for ongoing prophylactic use in the essential services, especially since the pandemic could come in more than one wave.
I raise a point of order, Madam Speaker. I request the Minister to clarify his answer, because when he said “no and yes” I was not sure whether he was saying “no or yes”. Those are two quite different answers.
The member asked two questions and the Minister answered those questions, so that is not a point of order.
If a vaccine does become available, how quickly could the population be immunised, considering that the meningococcal B programme started a year ago and the Government has still not immunised every under-5-year-old?
The member raises another good question. I think that the challenges of vaccinating an entire population, especially since it is likely to have to be done twice, in any short period of time is very challenging, indeed. I make a further point that if we have to bring people together to vaccinate them, we need to weigh the risks of bringing people together against the benefits of vaccination. So there is a lot to be asked yet about vaccination—questions that I am asking, and that I am sure the member and other members of the Health Committee will ask public health officials when they meet tomorrow.
Why does the Government’s action plan not deal with who will actually treat the sick?
The Government’s action plan does. Beneath the released version 14 of the plan lies a great deal of other literature and thought, and I invite the members of the Health Committee tomorrow to put some of those questions to the public health people who are to be in front of them.
If the member wants documents to be released that are unreleased, can he please put the question to me. I am happy to release things that may be useful in explaining that.
Why will the Government not release the draft list of who will get priority to the special reserves of Tamiflu, so that businesses and emergency services can plan in light of that information?
To the best of my knowledge, there is no such draft list, but if there were it would be unlikely to be of any value. One cannot have a useful response to who should get Tamiflu until the nature of the virus and the sections of the community it is likely to affect are known, and that is not possible until there is a bug to respond to.
Is the reason why the Ministry of Health has not released its discussion on the reserve list that the Minister is on it?