5 Jul 2009

Three NZ swine flu-related deaths confirmed

5:03 pm on 5 July 2009

The country's first swine flu-related deaths have been confirmed. Three people - a 19-year-old man from Waikato, a 42-year old man from Christchurch and a young girl from Wellington - are the first fatalities of the H1N1 virus.

The 19-year-old has been named as Zachary Wilson from Hamilton. He died at his home in Hamilton on Sunday 28 June.

On Thursday, a 42-year-old man died in Christchurch.

On Saturday, a young girl with underlying medical conditions died in Wellington Hospital, the Ministry of Health says. She had earlier tested positive to swine flu.

The Chief Coroner, Judge Neil MacLean, reported the deaths of the two men on Saturday in the wake of coronial post-mortems.

He said preliminary tests in the Christchurch and Hamilton cases indicated a "strongly probability" of the H1N1 virus being involved.

"Autopsies have been carried out indicating a likelihood of H1N1 and subsequent virology tests confirm that to a high degree of probability," he said. "(We) can't say 100%, but so high that it's unlikely that will change."

The man in Christchurch had underlying medical conditions, a Ministry of Health statement said on Saturday. The Hamilton teenager had not been in hospital. It is understood he had suffered from asthma but his medical background remains unclear.

The Waikato Medical Officer of Health Dr Felicity Dumble says it was only after a post mortem examination and tests that authorities became aware of the swine flu connection.

Dr Dumble says Mr Wilson had had flu like symptoms for three or four days before he died.

She says the Wilson family want the public to be aware just how quickly the illness can develop after the first symptoms show, and people should seek medical attention if someone's condition is deteriorating.

Ministry approach unchanged

The Director of Public Health Mark Jacobs says the ministry is very sure all three deaths are linked to swine flu.

But he says it will continue with its current approach to managing the H1N1 pandemic.

"There is no need to change our management approach at this stage but we remain vigilant"

Dr Jacobs says New Zealand records about 400 deaths a year from seasonal influenza.

"The situation overall hasn't changed. We are still expecting the great majority of people who get swine flu will get a mild to moderate illness that they'll be able to manage themselves at home."

He says it is a tragic fact of life that, although influenza for most people is relatively mild, some people experience a much more severe illness.

"We're not at all surprised that this has happened with swine flu," he said.

The Ministry of Health said on Sunday the total number of people who have swine flu, or have had the virus at some stage, is 961.

Two people with the virus are critically ill in the intensive care unit at Auckland hospital, while a 30-year-old woman in Wellington Hospital's ICU remains in a serious but stable condition.

Flu symptoms may mask measles

Medical officials in Christchurch say swine flu symptoms may be masking that people have measles.

There is a measles outbreak in the city, with four Christchurch Boys' High School students confirmed as having the disease, and six other teenagers and children suspected of having it.

Canterbury Medical Officer of Health Dr Cheryl Brunton says measles and flu symptoms are similar.

She says the early symptoms of measles, such as cough, headache and a runny nose, are also the early symptoms of swine flu.

She says especially before the measles rash appears, the symptoms can easily be confused with those of influenza.

Dr Brunton is expecting more cases of measles to emerge, because the four boys confirmed as having it have been in contact with many people.

Minister offers sympathy

The Minister of Health has offered sympathy to the families of the three New Zealanders who have died.

Tony Ryall says deaths related to swine flu are to be expected.

"Sadly it is in line with what we're seeing overseas - that some people are dying with complications linked to swine flu.

"(It's) certainly the experience internationally and the Ministry of Health and myself both send our sincere sympathies to the affected families."