The Howard government spent hundreds of millions of dollars preparing for a deadly influenza pandemic through late 2005 and 2006. Anti-viral stockpiling was ramped up, large-scale rehearsals for government and emergency departments responses to a pandemic outbreak were held, millions of dollars were given to privately owned vaccine manufacturers to increase their ability to pump out alleged flu vaccines in the millions of doses for the (then) coming day when mass vaccination programs would be unveiled...
Compared to current health minister, Nicola Roxon, then health minister Tony Abbott was Mr Doom, and pandemic flu Fearmonger In Chief. He also happened to be mostly right.
From Lateline, September 13, 2005 (excerpts) :
TONY JONES: In a little publicised speech at an infectious diseases conference several months ago, the Health Minister Tony Abbott spelled out the worst-case scenario for a global avian flu pandemic. As you'll hear, contingency planning is well advanced in this country, though many thousands of deaths are still anticipated, along with the potential for social and economic chaos in a health crisis that could last six months or more....The Rudd government response appears, for now, to be following the pandemic response plans drawn up in 2005 and 2006.
TONY JONES : Now, would you agree that preparing this country for a possible avian flu pandemic could well be the most important job you ever do as a politician?
TONY ABBOTT: ....We don't know if a pandemic will happen, we don't know when one might happen, but if one does happen it will be a public health disaster, the magnitude of which this country has not seen at least since 1919 when we had the last flu pandemic.
....back in 1919, Australia had a Spanish flu pandemic outbreak and that killed some 13,000 Australians, in a then population of about 4 million and at different times in the first half of 1919, schools were closed, churches were closed, places of public gathering were off limits. Normal life had pretty much ceased in large parts of Australia. We have little folk memory of this thoug...
TONY JONES: You've actually said and referred to it in this way - that what a new pandemic might be like would be a sort of biological tsunami?
TONY ABBOTT: That's correct, because if we have a pandemic of the severity of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1819, many, many tens of millions of people could die in the absence of effective prophylaxis and treatment and while we are reasonably confident that antivirals can be effective in preventing people from getting the disease, there's nothing like the kind of antiviral stockpile anywhere in the world that will fully protect people....
TONY JONES: ....Hugh White has told us that the threat of a flu pandemic to Australia makes the threat of terrorism really pale into insignificance. Do you agree with him?
TONY ABBOTT: I don't think that the threat of terrorism is something that we should take lightly and there is an element of horror in man killing his fellow man, which is absent from things which are truly acts of God. But still, there is no doubt about it. A pandemic if it hits Australia and it is of the severity of the 1918 outbreak, will potentially kill many thousands of people and it's hard to imagine any terrorist attack - short of a nuclear bomb in a major city - that would have a comparable impact.
TONY JONES: I understand the quarantine arrangements that you have are quite extensive, six times 500-bed facilities, is that the case? Where would they be and how quickly could they be put in place?
TONY ABBOTT: Basically we are prepositioning the equipment necessary to stock these quarantine centres and the quarantine centres will be close by international airports.
TONY JONES: Do you think we've got our priorities right here? We have spent hundred and hundreds of millions of dollars and perhaps nearly $1 billion on border security relating to terrorism. Have we spent anywhere near that much as what you admit theoretically would be a far worse outcome if a pandemic occurred?
TONY ABBOTT: We have spent everything that we can usefully spend so far, Tony. We've got on a per capita basis just about the world's largest stockpile of antivirals. We are working very hard and as quickly as we can on a candidate pandemic vaccine. We're prepositioning these quarantine centres. We've got our national pandemic plan in place in consultation with the states and territories. We are close to achieving our stockpile of masks and syringes. So all the money that we need to spend on preparedness that we can usefully currently spend we have spent.
TONY JONES: How detailed, though, is the emergency plan? Do you have plans to evacuate cities? Do you have plans as happened back in the turn of the century, or during the First World War outbreak? Do you have plans to close down public facilities, theatres, even possibly public transport?
TONY ABBOTT: Again Tony, that would depend upon the particular virulence of the outbreak. Certainly we have plans for an escalating health response, including mobile teams, home quarantine, home treatment, so that only the very serious cases have to go to public hospitals.
But will the Rudd government give vaccine makers the same immunity from prosecution for deaths, side effects and illnesses (that may result from its pandemic flu vaccine), that the Howard government was willing to grant back CSL in 2006?