NZ must ‘properly screen’ passengers in Pacific, says former health chief

Dr Collin Tukuitonga ... "I think we became complacent - all of New Zealand, not just Pacific.” Image: AUT

By Sri Krishnamurthi

Former Director of Public Health Dr Colin Tukuitonga says it is incumbent on New Zealand to screen passengers travelling to and from the Pacific Islands thoroughly for the Covid-19 coronavirus.

Coronavirus continues to proliferate rapidly outside China where it originated, topping 90,000 cases and 3000 deaths worldwide.

There was risk of “devastating” the Pacific Islands, just as the measles outbreak did in Samoa last year with 5700 cases of measles and 83 deaths, out of a Samoan population of 200,874.

READ MORE: Coronavirus deaths in US rise to six – latest updates

“As for having something like the measles epidemic in the Islands, for example flights to and from Niue are to New Zealand first, and if New Zealand doesn’t scan all the passengers thoroughly then there is a chance of this virus spreading into the Islands,” Dr Tukuitonga said.

“In public health we use what we call as the precautionary principle where we do not have all the information that we need. The natural history of the coronavirus infection remains unknown.”

Dr Tukuitonga, who is the inaugural associate dean Pacific of Auckland University’s Health and Medical Sciences Faculty, said: “New Zealand doesn’t seem to be as concerned about the assessment and spread of the coronavirus. It has spread very quickly in Italy and South Korea.”

He recalled his time as the chief executive officer of the then Ministry Of Pacific Island Affairs in 2009 when there was an outbreak of influenza A (H1N1) 09, (swine flu) particularly among Pacific people.

No large gatherings
“Someone from the Pacific Media Network interviewed me and I recall I made a statement then that people shouldn’t congregate in large gatherings in the community, and I am of the same view now,” he said.

Minister for Pacific Peoples ‘Aupito William Sio said his advice, posted on social media was: “Not be scared but be prepared”.

“Given Samoa’s warning to our people travelling to Samoa, given coronavirus, what messages can you share with us to help our community?” he asked Dr Neru Leavasa on a Facebook post.

Dr Leavsasa emphasised that prevention was better than a cure approach.

“As a precautionary step, if you are coughing, rather than coughing into your hand, cough into the crook of your elbow, and if you do sneeze then use a tissue and get rid of it and wash your hands.”

The minister was also asked by Mangere-Otahuhu Local Board chair Lemauga Lydia Sosene: “What about large gatherings?”

He replied: “That’s a problem because we love to greet and hug, I’m going to suggest that instead of the greeting, hugging and kissing, that people give a thumbs up, nod and the bent-elbow sign in greeting.”

Close contact warning
Dr Leavasa warned about close contact.

“Yeah, elbow pump, but pretty much no hand contact, if you do then wash your hands for about 20sec,” Dr Leavasa said.

The Minister for Health, Dr David Clark, has told Pacific Media Network it was safe to attend the Pasifika and Polyfest festivals.

“We’re confident at this stage the chance any spread into the community is very low, as long as people take sensible precautions,” Clark said.

Agnes Loheni, the National Party’s associate spokesperson for Pacific people urged caution and for people to be extra vigilant with proper hygiene practices.

“Serious illnesses such as the flu tend to have a worse toll in Māori and Pacific communities, especially if there are other issues such as overcrowded and inadequate housing,” she said.

“The recent measles outbreak in South Auckland showed how quickly highly contagious illness can spread so we need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to minimise the impact of coronavirus” she said.

As of yet, no cases have been recorded in the Pacific Islands.

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