Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Pandemic flu

Pandemic lessons from Australia

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: (Published 18 August 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b3317
  1. Melissa Sweet, freelance health journalist
  1. 1New South Wales, Australia

    Pandemic flu hit Australia at the start of its peak flu season. Melissa Sweet looks at the virus’s effects and what the northern hemisphere can learn as its winter approaches

    In the three months since influenza A/H1N1 first emerged in Australia, the response has evolved—judging by newspaper headlines—from hysteria through accusations of over-reaction to concern about the effect of critically ill patients on stretched intensive care units.

    At the same time, the general public and health services have grappled with messages and policies that have been, at times, inconsistent. “The big concern from our perspective would be the lack of consistent information the general public received, especially about what they should do,” said Carol Bennett, executive director of the Consumers Health Forum Australia.

    “It would be really useful now to review the response in a pragmatic way and an honest way, and to look at the general principles that we’ve learnt.”

    Communication has been inconsistent partly because different parts of Australia have gone through the pandemic at different times and officials have been faced with the challenge of adjusting the response to cope with an infection that has not been as dangerous as the worst case scenario expectations that underpinned planning. It is also a consequence of the complexity of Australia’s federation, requiring coordination of one national and eight state and territory governments.

    But it also reflects division in medical and scientific experts’ views, with some warning of the potential for tens of thousands of deaths, while others have cautioned against over-reaction.

    Scale of epidemic

    According to official figures, Australia, with a population of 21 million, had 27 663 confirmed cases by 11 August, with 95 confirmed deaths and 3281 hospital admissions. The federal minister for health and ageing, Nicola Roxon, told a news conference on 5 August that the median age of those …

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