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EU unprepared for avian flu pandemic

EU emergency plans to control a possible avian flu pandemic contain serious flaws, says a WHO-sponsored study

EU plans to control a possible flu pandemic contain serious flaws, according to a World Health Organisation (WHO)-sponsored study.

Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine examined 29 European countries and concluded that authorities must close loopholes in their pandemic plans urgently in order to prepare for vaccines and antiviral drug distribution, add to currently insufficient stockpiles and revisit plans for border controls.

The study warned that many EU countries risked "chaotic service responses and public anxiety", if they allowed regional or local authorities to organise drug delivery during a pandemic and offering little or no guidance.

The study, which was published in the October issue of the WHO Bulletin, revealed: "Our findings show that even in Europe, which may be better prepared than some regions, considerable gaps and inconsistencies persist and several areas of operational planning have not been addressed."

Only half EU states have full storage and delivery strategies
The researchers warned that the remaining gaps and inconsistencies needed urgent attention despite outwardly strong government commitment in Europe and strengthened planning since the 2005 evaluation was performed. The study found that only half the countries had developed full storage and delivery strategies for antiviral drugs, particularly as a preventive treatment to slow the spread of pandemic avian flu.

Current scientific opinion states that the H5N1 strain of avian flu could eventually mutate into a form transmissible between humans and cause a global flu pandemic, with fatalities rivalling or even surpassing the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1919.

Over 300 human cases of H5N1 bird flu infections have been documented since 2003. More than 201 people have died, according to WHO. Most cases have been in seen in Asia, but the virus has also spread to the Middle East and Nigeria.

WHO has led programmes to get ready for a pandemic: stockpiling of antiviral drug treatments; promoting greater vaccine research; and increasing advanced emergency planning measures.

No speedy delivery strategy for antivirals
There remains no effective vaccine against pandemic flu. A vaccine would need to be developed and produced rapidly to match the particular strain that emerges. The authors also said that shortcomings in planned checks on travellers were likely to be politically volatile during a pandemic.

The study was initially to cover the 27 EU member states, Norway, Switzerland and Turkey. However, one unidentified nation was not included in the final analysis, according to the study team. Only half of the countries had concrete plans to coordinate their border controls with neighbouring states, while 19 favoured screening travellers on entry. Ten countries did not plan to screen travellers at all.

"The issue of how to deliver antivirals within 48 hours to individual patients remains largely unresolved," warned WHO.

30th September 2008

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