Public health experts have warned that a severe pandemic has the potential to cripple essential infrastructure and cause a catastrophic collapse of systems. A new study, to be undertaken by the University of New South Wales (UNSW), will assess how prepared Australia really is for a pandemic and identify 'weakest links'.

The study, funded by a grant of $210,000 from the Australian Research Council (ARC), with a further $60,000 from the Australian Centre for Health Research (ACHR), will develop mathematical models to simulate dependencies between systems.

Professor Raina MacIntyre, Head of UNSW's School of Public Health and Community Medicine, said the announcement couldn't be more timely.

"There was no way of knowing when the grant proposal was submitted late last year that by the middle of 2009 Australians would be experiencing more directly some of the potential problems of pandemic influenza," Professor MacIntyre said.

"Fortunately, the impacts of H1N1 influenza, so far, have been limited. However, it is easy to imagine what could eventuate here after witnessing events in Mexico.

"Traditional pandemic planning tends to focus on the many health issues; the flow-on impacts on the critical infrastructure that underpins society are rarely considered. This study will address that gap."

A pandemic could potentially cause large-scale absenteeism affecting services such as health, security, water supply, garbage removal, power and transport, she said.

"It is possible that many consumer products and services may be in short supply because the people normally involved in providing them will be unable to work. Similar obstacles and absences would affect all layers of society," she said.

The study will also look at how important private hospitals are in the overall functioning of the health system in a pandemic situation.

"This information will eventually allow us to help private hospitals to adjust their plans to the very specific conditions of a pandemic spread," Professor MacIntyre said.

Neil Batt, Executive Director of ACHR, said he was delighted with the opportunity to partner with UNSW.

"We're contributing to the cost of the study because the implications of a pandemic on the private sector could be very severe. For instance about half of all elective surgery may be threatened as private hospitals struggle with shortages or because they provide fallback support for a public system under pressure.

"We're extremely grateful for the positive response by the ARC as the study will plug a significant information gap in Australian pandemic planning," Mr Batt said.

Media contact: Steve Offner | 02 9385 8107 |