Coronavirus: Government urged to halt Pacific flights if virus arrives in New Zealand

Coronavirus: Government urged to halt Pacific flights if virus arrives in New Zealand
Photo credit: Getty

By Mackenzie Smith of RNZ

Health experts are urging the government to take steps to prevent the 'export' of infectious diseases to the Pacific, including considering halting all air travel to the region if the Wuhan coronavirus arrives in New Zealand.

There are fears the coronavirus could spell a repeat of an epidemic of measles that spread from New Zealand to Samoa, where it has killed 83 people and made nearly 6000 ill since October.

Samoa's Ministry of Health has already confirmed that two Samoan sailors are in quarantine for 14 days at the Faleolo District Hospital amid fears they might be carrying China's coronavirus.

Samoa has stopped direct flights from China to reduce the risk of introducing the coronavirus.

"A major challenge for New Zealand is to ensure it does not export this coronavirus to Pacific Islands where it could be devastating," said Michael Baker, a professor of public health at the University of Otago, in a post on the university's blog.

"If this new coronavirus does become established in New Zealand we should work with Pacific nations to consider exit screening or even suspending air flights from New Zealand to give them more time to prepare for this epidemic."

Experts say the spread of measles in the Pacific illustrates how New Zealand has put the region at risk through its failure to contain infectious diseases.

In July, a national measles prevention body urged the government to meet the target immunisation coverage of 95 percent set by the World Health Organisation. Among two-year-olds in New Zealand, 91 percent are fully immunised, according to government data.

"We have tools at our disposal to control measles and we didn't use them," said Helen Petousis Harris, a vaccinologist at the University of Auckland.

The July warning from the National Verification Committee for Measles and Rubella Elimination also said New Zealand should consider requiring travellers at borders to be vaccinated against measles to prevent it from spreading to Pacific nations. The measure was never implemented.

Jose Sousa-Santos, the managing director of security analysis firm Strategika Group, said New Zealand "continued to operate on a business-as-usual model rather than being proactive in the threat of this measles outbreak possibly spreading to the Pacific".

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the government continues to work on measles prevention and control measures in the Pacific.

"We are working with each government to support their plans for responding to measles outbreaks, longer-term recovery, and look at what more we can do to assist."