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Global killer virus threat large
Global killer virus threat large

WA's leading medical experts say a lethal virus capable of killing millions of people, as in the Hollywood blockbuster Contagion, is likely.

Paul Armstrong, head of the Health Department's communicable disease control directorate, said the "realistic" movie provided an accurate portrayal of how quickly a devastating disease could sweep across the globe, including into Australia, claiming countless lives.

"The risk of something like that happening is there," Dr Armstrong said. "It will happen at some stage in the future and has been happening since time immemorial.

"Human history is littered with large-scale infectious diseases and outbreaks that have killed a lot of people around the world and the last big one was the Spanish influenza pandemic in 1918 to 1919 . . . with various estimates putting the mortality of that between 50 and 200 million people, more than those killed during World War 1."

Dr Armstrong said it was inevitable that a deadly pandemic would strike again.

It would not happen often and advances in medical science meant the human race would survive, though it faced a big death toll.

"It might be in 100 years, in 50 years or next year," he said.

Dr Armstrong was one of eight WA experts who met yesterday at a federal health committee to discuss Australia's ability to respond to a national or global health crisis.

They looked at the spread of diseases, a threat compounded by increasing levels of travel to South-East Asia and immigration.

The committee was told a severe pandemic much bigger than SARS or swine flu would quickly overwhelmed Australia's resources.

Luck had played a major role in Australia avoiding a "disastrous" pandemic so far.

There was an overwhelming call for a national centre, such as in the US, Canada and Europe, for disease control, to manage day to day health issues and to co-ordinate a response to a lethal pandemic.

This was necessary because co-ordination was lacking at a national level, despite the high level of expertise and organisation in the States and Territories.

Dr Armstrong said national resources had to be bolstered before an outbreak exposed existing systems as inadequate.

The committee was told Australia should help its near neighbours, such as Papua New Guinea, deal with diseases such as tuberculosis.