Tens of thousands could die in modern-day influenza pandemic - health expert

A pandemic research fund has been added to the health sector's wish-list.

Public health experts want the Government to create a living memorial to mark the 1918 disaster and better prepare the country for future events.

Prof Michael Baker of the University of Otago Department of Public Health says pandemics can happen about three times a century.

"1918 was the most lethal influenza pandemic in recent history, but we could get an event like that again anytime - and it could be more severe."

Four-hundred and forty Kiwis died each day at the height of the pandemic - that's equivalent to more than 1800 deaths when scaled up to today's population. 

"It's like five or six years of the road toll all happening in a single day," said Prof Baker.

The total death toll then was 9000 - today it would be about 37,000. Worldwide, the death toll has been estimated as high as 40 million.

Prof Baker wants the Government to set up a research fund to better prepare the country for future disasters, saying that would be the best memorial for those who died in 1918.

"We think it would be far more appropriate we commemorate this event by putting money and resources into preventing pandemics happening again, and improving resilience so communities are better able to survive these events."

If an influenza pandemic happened today, experts believe it could be more lethal than the one a century ago, thanks to urbanisation and frequent air travel.

"If pandemic influenza arrived tomorrow it would be impossible to stop it spreading within New Zealand and it could be as lethal, or even more lethal, than it was in 1918," Prof Baker told the Otago Daily Times.