Newsletter Digest: Two types of ‘flu, water, and 3 degrees C

Swine flu – lessons one year on

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This time last year, as Kiwis prepared to attend weekend dawn parade and RSA dinners in celebration of ANZAC Day, a public health issue was brewing that would quickly come to dominate headlines globally.

In hindsight, it’s easy to for critics to take pot shots at the scale of the response to the swine flu pandemic, which although lethal for dozens of New Zealanders and over 17,000 people internationally, was mild compared to previous pandemics. But scientists the SMC spoke to this week have defended the response from the health sector and scientific community.

As leading avian flu expert and virologist Dr Robert Webster says: “What would have happened if it had become as pathogenic as H5N1 and killed 63 per cent of the population?

“There’s no way we can predict severity at this stage. We are criticised because we don’t have the knowledge that will allow us to do that.”

Scientists contacted by the SMC also give their perspectives on what we learned from the pandemic and what their expectations are for the current flu season – their comments are published in full on the SMC website.

The AusSMC held a panel discussion with Australian scientists reflecting on what the key takeaways from the pandemic were for the scientific community. You can play back the briefing audio here.

Adverse reactions in Western Australia

News broke this morning that vaccination for seasonal flu has been suspended for children under the age of five following reports of dozens of children becoming ill in Western Australia after receiving the seasonal flu jab.

Australia’s chief medical officer Jim Bishop called a halt to vaccination for children under five while an investigation is carried out. On this side of the Tasman, vaccine experts say advice is unchanged as there have been no unusually high rates of adverse reactions reported.

“The Center for Adverse Event Monitoring isn’t receiving reports of  unusual reactions or excessive numbers of events given that we are vaccinating a lot more people than in previous years,” said Helen Petousis-Harris, Director of Research at the Immunisation Advisory Centre.

“Uptake of the flu vaccine has been a lot higher this year. Some children are prone to febrile convulsions (having a seizure with a high fever). We do not see any reason to change current seasonal influenza vaccination activities.”

Full coverage of reaction to the vaccine halt in Australia is available on the SMC website.

Podcasts: water, water everywhere…

The Blue Energy conference in Wellington this week heard from the major players in New Zealand’s fledgling marine energy sector and highlighted the opportunities and obstacles that face companies trying to introduce wave and tidal power technology to New Zealand.

The SMC was on hand to record numerous podcasts, featuring speakers from the likes of NIWA, Crest Energy, WET-NZ and Energy Pacifica. Full coverage is available on the SMC website.

Meanwhile, the water quality of the Manuwatu River was in the spotlight this week at a scientific briefing held by Horizon’s Regional Council in Palmerston North to update the media on what state the river is actually in and what research is underway to monitor and identify ways of improving water quality. The SMC was on hand to record the briefing, which is available for playback on the SMC website.

Scientists warn on climate targets

A hard-hitting opinion piece by scientists in this week’s issue of Nature suggests the world is on track for global warming this century of greater than 2 degrees Celsius if pledges for emissions reductions made in Copenhagen are not strengthened.

The Nature piece analyses best- and worst-case scenarios for how well countries might hold to their pledges, and finds that, “in the worst case the Copenhagen Accord pledges could permit emission allowances to exceed business-as-usual projections.”

Local climate scientist, Victoria University’s Dr Andy Reisinger commented: “Even in the optimistic case, the weak emissions targets for 2020 and the even weaker or absent targets for 2050 by many countries imply a greater than 50% chance that global warming will exceed 3°C by 2100.

“In the pessimistic case, which is more likely to become reality if the Copenhagen Accord is not turned into a strong and legally binding agreement, long-term warming is likely to be even greater.”

Full commentary from scientists on the paper is available on the SMC website.