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Influenza pandemic: Is PNG ready for the ‘Big One’?

Flu inoculationPAUL OATES

HEIGHTENED awareness of the oncoming influenza season in Australia raises questions about whether Papua New Guinea is ready for a predicted severe flu epidemic.

This year a single injection offering some protection against four strains of flu is being offered to the Australian population based on flu varieties currently circulating in the Northern Hemisphere.

So what is the difference between the common cold and influenza? Most people when they catch a cold should rest and drink plenty of water.

There are 200 or more viruses that can cause a cold. These viruses infect a person’s upper respiratory tract and are often grouped under the acronym, URTI.

A cold can lead to complications in people who are not in the best of health or those who catch a secondary infection, but most colds last just a few days before the person recovers.

While influenza is also a virus, its effects can be severe, especially in children, the elderly and those whose health has been weakened by other medical problems such as AIDS.

Viruses are not controlled by antibiotics which can only control bacterial infections. In many countries, the over prescription of antibiotics has had the unwanted result of creating super bugs that are now resistant to many antibiotics.

A virus can usually only be caught once and if the person recovers, they are usually immune from that strain of virus for life. However the nature of viruses is that they mutate quickly and immunity against a newly mutated virus rarely exists.

PNG has many other communicable diseases. Water borne diseases such as typhoid can be caught due to poor personal hygiene. Mosquito carried diseases like malaria, dengue fever and chikungunya can be prevented by ensuring you aren’t bitten.

Fungal diseases on the skin like tinea imbricata (‘grille’ in Tok Pisin), can be caught through contact with others who have this condition but may take some time to fully develop.  

Viruses are extremely contagious. They are transmitted through personal contact or through the transfer body fluids or through the air when someone who has the virus sneezes or coughs, releasing hundreds of thousands of viruses into the air.

The infection can be transmitted simply by breathing in some of these.

Personal contact like shaking hands can transmit the virus unless the hands are washed well. However, this is not always practical or good manners.

Freezing a virus doesn’t kill it. Only boiling infected material like a handkerchief for several minutes will kill most viruses. 

The only way a person may have some immunity from catching a strain of influenza is to be inoculated against it. Inoculations against influenza are prepared by pharmaceutical companies and government laboratories that prepare injections containing parts of the virus but not the complete virus.

After being inoculated, a person’s immune system creates antibodies against that variety of virus. The person doesn’t catch the disease from the injection. Sometimes there may be a reaction as the body manufactures the antibodies. Some people may believe they have caught the disease but this is not so.

Some people believe inoculations are dangerous but medical authorities refute this as a falsehood.

There are currently a number of warnings about the oncoming flu season in the Southern Hemisphere. Health warnings in Australia have advised the flu viruses infecting the Northern Hemisphere are about to arrive.

The number of people now travelling by air ensures viruses can be taken around the world within a short space of time.

Even before modern air travel, the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 infected over 500 million people and resulted in the death of 50-100 million. The infection was helped to spread by the mass movement of people due to war.

My grandfather volunteered for the Australian Army in World War I. Stationed in England, on the night before he was due to be sent to the front in France, he went to sleep and woke up three days later. He’d caught the Spanish flu.

Even after he recovered, his health was so affected by the flu that he was sent home as an incapacitated veteran. He was never strong again.

Spanish Flu killed far more people than battle casualties in World War I. The death rate among Australian servicemen in that war (62,000) was roughly equivalent to the death rate of those who contracted this variety of influenza.

The origins of Spanish Flu are not known however it is thought that it may have originated in China in poultry and leapt the species barrier as have many recent virus outbreaks like bird flu and swine flu.

Recent studies on how a flu epidemic may affect PNG have revealed some important conclusions.

Comparing two cities of similar size, one in PNG and one in Australia, it was found that due to PNG having a larger young population and greater contact between individuals, there was a far higher risk of a flu infection quickly spreading throughout PNG.

The problem with an influenza epidemic is that it spreads quickly in heavily populated areas and often overwhelms health authorities.

PNG’s health system is not well resourced and rural populations which contract influenza and are severely ill may have little opportunity to access public health facilities.

Public awareness of how people catch influenza is important in reducing its spread. In many Japanese cities, people can be seen wearing face masks in an effort to limit spreading infection.

The use of tissues rather than handkerchiefs is encouraged since these paper products can be disposed of in public garbage bins or burnt later.

Group immunity is another factor that is important to help protect individuals. If a group of people have some immunity to a disease, individuals are less likely to acquire it.

In developed countries annual flu shots (inoculations) help increase the community’s immunity to infection. In PNG, annual flu inoculations are often not available, especially in rural areas.

The most important aspect of any disease however is awareness of how it can be caught and what to do if you catch it. Access to health facilities is important if complications arise.

This is a significant factor for PNG public health officials to consider and have contingency plans ready should a pandemic occur.


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Paul Oates

Hi Monica,

I suggest students who have access to the internet try a simple search with the subject matter and then follow up the references.

Here are a few URL's that could be useful:

Hope that is helpful. I'm sure your own Health Department should also be able to help.

Monica Sungu

Students as keen observers are interested to study on influenza virus activity in Papua New Guinea. How can you help them get access to related information?
Thank you
Monica Sungu (Ms)

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