Heather Roy's Diary

Published: Fri 14 Oct 2005 05:16 PM
Heather Roy's Diary
Wananga Protest
The television news last night showed pictures of a protest at parliament by the Aotearoa Institute showing that politics outside parliament rolls on while the country waits for an election outcome and Winston breaks from negotiations with Helen Clark to consider his options. The Aotearoa Institute - the parent body of Te Wananga O Aotearoa - yesterday appeared before the Waitangi Tribunal alleging the government had failed to honour part of a 1998 settlement, a $20 million suspensory loan. The government for its part said the Wananga had not met its obligations including maintaining a ratio of 80 percent Maori enrolees.
Before taking their case to the Waitangi Tribunal the group brought a protest to the steps of Parliament where Maori Party representatives met them. Rodney Hide and I were invited to join them. Later a handful of National Party MPs arrived. Much later the Minister of Maori Affairs, Parakura Horomia showed up but was at pains to declare himself a caretaker minister and therefore effectively powerless to help. The protesters had some valid points. They don't want separatist tertiary education, which will inevitably lead to second-rate learning. Maori, like all New Zealanders, deserve educational excellence. The government by insisting on an 80% Maori enrolment rate in exchange for funds is setting the scene for the ghetto-isation of Maori education. ACT believes in choice and equal opportunity for all in education provided accountability is part of the equation when taxpayer money is the source of funding. We were happy to join the Maori Party MPs to meet with the protestors. In these days of coalition talks areas of policy agreement come in some interesting and unpredictable forms.
A Global Pandemic?
Although we are now well through the typical 'flu season' talk of other flu's just won't go away. The bird flu and to a lesser extent the Spanish flu have been in the headlines and many public health experts are warning that we may soon face a worldwide epidemic (a pandemic) of influenza. Influenza epidemics are common but there are particular fears over this virus strain - H5N1 bird flu - as it resembles the virus that caused an epidemic in 1918.
The 1918 epidemic was deadly throughout the world and New Zealand was not spared the effects with 8,600 people dying. Unusually for influenza, this epidemic mainly affected adults aged 18 to 40 so society had its strongest members out of action. There were horror stories from around the world of children and elderly struggling to cope with sick relatives whilst the young adults they would normally look to for help were either sick themselves, were frightened of catching the disease or were simply dead. Elderly clergymen had to double as gravediggers because there was nobody else to do the job.
There is still no treatment for this influenza but if the disease struck again the death toll would probably be much lower. In the 1918 epidemic many died from pneumonia acquired in their weakened state but today pneumonia is treatable.
Nobody really knows if the disease affecting poultry in South East Asia and Eastern Europe will cause a human epidemic. There have already been some human casualties. Of the 120 people diagnosed with the bird flu about half have died and nearly all of those afflicted had been working with sick poultry. As yet there is no epidemic amongst humans.
It is known that the current "bird flu" resembles the 1918 strain because of some remarkable work by Dr Taubenberger of the United States Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. As some of the Alaskan and Norwegian casualties of the1918 strain were buried in permafrost he was able to obtain tissue samples and test for virus. He took some criticism at the time as he might have bumbled into virus that was still alive and restarted another epidemic. However, he found virus that was dead but its DNA could be sequenced. That sequence showed that the 1918 influenza was a bird flu. It is thought that an epidemic starts when a creature, animal or human, gets a human and animal virus together at once and a new strain emerges that can infect people. But such an event is entirely unpredictable.
The DNA sequence obtained by Dr Taubenberger allowed US scientists, only in the last few months, to recreate the 1918 virus. This sounds like a dangerous thing to do and reminds me of the fictional Dustin Hoffman film "Outbreak" where drastic measures were used to enforce quarantine after a disease crossed from animals to humans. I am assured that the 1918 virus is stored under strictest security and the fact that it exists means that it is possible to create a vaccine. Another of the wonders of genetic engineering!
Implications for New Zealand are uncertain. In these days of global travel diseases spread quickly and it is important that we are prepared for all eventualities. Inevitably questions arise while the world looks on and awaits developments.

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