Tuesday 23 September 8.30pm on SBS ONE
Australia – and the world - is at risk of a deadly pandemic taking hold.
But it’s not Ebola.
The real threat is influenza. A new, severe strain has the potential to bring our society to its knees. You would transmit it before you realised you were sick. You wouldn’t have any immunity. It would spread like wildfire. And that’s why it’s deadly.
In a special episode, Insight explores just how Australia would cope in a hypothetical influenza pandemic situation.
The program hears from the people whose job it is to protect us – from those that make the vaccines to the people who make decisions on quarantining.
Host Jenny Brockie asks how our medical sector would deal with a sustained severe virus, what the strain would be on basic necessities like food, water and shelter, and how to inform people on protecting themselves.
“Virtually the world has no immunity to that new virus.”
Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, Rosemary Lester leads the charge in that state when a pandemic is declared. She has just released a new plan to deal with Ebola, but says influenza is the main threat to Australia because it has a unique ability to change its genetic structure and spread rapidly.
“Huge numbers of people can be infected very quickly.”
If an influenza virus emerges, Anne Kelso will know about it. She runs one of four World Health Organisation’s Collaborating Centres in the world, which constantly assess new threats. Her lab is keeping a close eye on two avian influenza strains: H5N1 and H7N9. She says an influenza pandemic is inevitable.
“Everybody wants an instant solution but there's not an instant solution to this problem.”
Infectious diseases physician Peter Collignon says Australia will not have the facilities to look after the vast number of people sick from a severe influenza pandemic. And he thinks that’s exacerbated by the crowds of people who would unnecessarily swamp the health system because of fear.
“Being asked ‘where's the vaccine?’ doesn't actually speed up the process!”
A vaccine is a key weapon to fight an influenza virus, and as Chief Scientist at CSL, Andrew Cuthbertson is at the forefront. Creating a vaccine from scratch is a complex and lengthy process, taking anywhere from three to six months. Andrew says the government could ask his lab to make 22 million doses of a vaccine to protect Australia.
“95 percent of households now only have two to four days of food.”
Steve Newton has worked with Coles, Woolworths and Metcash to plan how supermarkets would operate in a severe pandemic. There are plans for hygiene stations, one-way access through the shop, and a one-metre trolley rule. And where does the food come from if workers and transport operators are off sick? Steve has looked at a pandemic pantry list.
“There's a very finite number of intensive care beds.”
Hospitals cop the full force of a pandemic. In the 2009 swine flu pandemic, Allen Cheng was faced with huge numbers of patients needing intensive care at the Alfred hospital. “We quickly realised that we wanted to separate the patients with flu from all the other patients that we saw at the hospital,” he says.
Insight is hosted by Gold Walkley Award-winning journalist Jenny Brockie and airs every Tuesday at 8.30pm on SBS ONE.