It is not even the end of January, but already there are signs emerging amongst active strains of the flu and other illnesses that this winter could have some nasty surprises. Although the regular summer still has a full two months to run and winter often does not start until about mid-June, warnings are being issued about Norovirus strain known as Sydney 2012.
A strain that started in the Northern Hemisphere, but which has spread across the equator on people who have been on long-haul flights from places such as the United Kingdom, is prompting concern. The Norovirus strain discovered in New South Wales, and currently active in Southland is causing health authorities at the Southland District Health Board concern. The strain in the Southland region is spreading across New Zealand and no one is immune to it. 20% of New Zealanders are infected with strains of the flu each year. It claims around 400 lives per annum. Complacency is being blamed in the United States for the number of people caught and struck down by Norovirus. The cost to employers is potentially very significant. Each employee that is struck down might lose up to a working week to the Norovirus, as they are not recommended to return to work for two days after they are well again, to ensure that the bug really has gone.
Another one on the loose at the moment is the Victoria strain of influenza. It has struck particularly hard in the United States with a high percentage of deaths in the last week being linked to the strain, which carries the designation H3N2. Thus far, all but three states have been affected by the Victoria strain. It struck New Zealand in 2012, but has since shown signs of returning in 2013 and is expected to be at it’s most problematic during the winter months.
Although the pandemic potential of the last few years – recalling Bird Flu and so forth – may appear to have been vastly overestimated, the rapidly growing demand for primary products created in environments such as poultry farms ensure that new strains will continue to materialise. The challenge for authorities will be to identify the strains before they become a problem and for the Ministries/Departments of Health around the world to ensure there are sufficient resources available to tackle the onset of a strain. While demand for primary product continues to grow and health standards in the countries of origin fail to improve, the potential for a serious pandemic remains real. It might not be as bad as the bird flu strain of 2008 that started in India, which had New Zealand authorities talking about contingency plans that involved sealing prisons and letting any outbreak of the flu in a prison run its course. However the global ease of travel these days would make it quite possible for a plane load of people coming from an infected location to transmit it half way around the world before it is discovered.
Let us hope the authorities are well prepared. I already have one friend caught out by the Sydney strain.