Page last updated at 23:24 GMT, Monday, 27 July 2009 00:24 UK

Australia offers swine flu test case

By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Sydney

An Australian receives a swine flu vaccination in Adelaide - 24 July 2009
The world's first trials of a swine flu vaccine have begun in Australia

Australia is currently living through what the northern hemisphere will soon have to confront: a winter with swine flu.

Public health officials in countries like the UK and US are therefore looking upon Australia as a global case study, and seeing what lessons they can glean from the country's handling of the pandemic.

Distance offered no protection for this far-flung country, and swine flu reached its shores in early May.

Since then, more than 40 people have died and more than 16,000 have been infected. There has been no sense of public panic, despite the fact that Melbourne for a time was dubbed the "swine flu capital of the world", the city with the highest concentration of cases.

With New Zealand hit first, Australia had a few crucial weeks to refine its response.

It prepared public information adverts, warning people to be careful to wash their hands and quickly rolled out thermal-imaging cameras at international airports to try to identify air travellers arriving with the virus.

If there was a vulnerability, it was at the ports. For a time, cruise passengers set foot in the country without being checked.

Although a swimming meet was cancelled in June, sports fixtures have not been disrupted and neither have other public gatherings.

People are not going around wearing protective masks, and the swine flu outbreak has not even dominated the headlines in recent times, although it has received extensive coverage.

Risk to Aborigines

Some affected schools have been shut, because Australia has realised that children are the so-called "super-spreaders" of H1N1.

Therein lies a lesson for the northern hemisphere, according to Professor Raina MacIntyre, from the University of New South Wales.

"Shutting schools is probably the key non-pharmaceuticals intervention and social distancing intervention that can have an impact," he said.

"We've had controversy here about things like banning sports fixtures and mass gatherings, and so on. But they have less of an impact than school closures because children are one of the key reservoirs of infection and transmission."

Aboriginal boy outside shop in outback town of Wadeye in the Northern Terrritory, Australia - 1 June 2009
Australia's indigenous population is at particular risk from swine flu

The vulnerable groups in Australia are similar to those elsewhere, she says: the young, pregnant women and the obese.

But indigenous Australians have also been at particular risk, partly because so many Aborigines tend to suffer from underlying medical conditions, and the provision of healthcare is not as good in the Outback communities where many of them live.

Then there is the problem of poor living conditions, which can accelerate the spread of the disease.

Last week, Alf Lacey, the Mayor of Palm Island, off the Queensland coast, described how 15 residents were living in a three-bedroom house.

It is thought 400 Palm Islanders have been infected out of a population of 3,500.

Last week, a pregnant woman suffering from swine flu was airlifted off the island. She lost her unborn child.

Vaccine trials

Elsewhere in Australia, intensive care units have come under a lot of pressure, and there has been a heightened demand for last-resort cardiac bypass machines which oxygenate the blood in cases where the lungs are particularly badly diseased or damaged.

One hospital in Sydney reported that it normally treats about five patients a year using these ECMO machines, as they are called. In the past few weeks alone, it has treated double that number.

Last week, Australia started human trials of a swine flu vaccine in Melbourne and Adelaide, the first in the world.

It is hoped that the vaccine will be available by October, and the Australian government has already ordered 21 million doses. The companies developing the vaccine are also looking to sell it abroad.

By then, it will be springtime in Australia. But one of the lessons this country has learnt from the northern hemisphere is that swine flu can spread even at the height of summer.

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