Havelock North water contamination inquiry – Expert Reaction

A Government Inquiry will examine the water contamination that left an estimated 4000 Havelock North residents ill with gastroenteritis.

Drop of waterThe draft terms of reference, released yesterday, specify that the inquiry will look at the cause of contamination and response, but also consider practices and recommendations to prevent future occurrences.

The SMC gathered comment on the inquiry. Feel free to use these comments in your reporting.

Michael Baker, Professor of Public Health, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, comments:

“I welcome this inquiry as it is important to learn as much as possible about this outbreak and how to prevent such events occurring in the future. I am pleased to see that the main emphasis is on taking a forward-looking approach to identify systematic improvements.

“It is also important that this inquiry is driven by good science, with a spread of relevant disciplines involved.

“It appears that the scope of the inquiry will include New Zealand’s capacity and resources to respond to major public health emergencies. Such a review is overdue. Comprehensive assessments on this scale have not been carried out following other recent public health emergencies, such as the 2009 influenza pandemic.

“Hopefully, this inquiry will take a broad approach when considering improvements to our legislative tools, infrastructure, and workforce. Prevention and rapid response require different capacities, so it is good that this inquiry is looking at both.

“I also hope that the inquiry considers the wider context of this outbreak, including factors such as the increasing pressures placed on our drinking water resources from intensification of farming and more frequent extreme weather events resulting from climate change. These pressures have implications for drinking water safety and many other aspects of New Zealand life.

“I was pleased to see that the inquiry will consider ‘any lessons and improvements that can be made to local and central government systems to expedite the identification of public health outbreaks’.

“While New Zealand has excellent health information, there are important gaps. One is in the area of primary care information. For example, there is an opportunity to implement direct reporting of selected illness consultation data from primary care centres and emergency departments that could improve the speed of identification of many outbreaks.”