Tuesday, March 1, 2005

The government of the United Kingdom has unveiled their strategy to deal with any future influenza pandemic in their Pandemic Influenza Contingency Plan.

The document, based on the World Health Organization‘s framework for responses, explains how the UK would respond to a major outbreak of flu.

Any flu pandemic would differ from the seasonal outbreaks of flu observed worldwide every year. While seasonal flu kills 12,000 Britons annually, a pandemic would affect far more people and could result in the deaths of up to 50,000 people in the UK if there were no medical intervention.

The government will have the power to cancel events where large numbers of people gather, such as football (soccer) matches. It could also advise travel restrictions to and from areas of high infection, but would not be able to enforce any such measures.

Schools might be closed in the event of a flu pandemic, and infected people would be asked to remain at home, although again no quarantine measures could be imposed by the government.

Further plans include education of the public to recognize symptoms of the flu and how to avoid infection.

Measures will be made to maintain basic services in the event of a pandemic despite staff absences through illness.

A major cornerstone of the plan is the prescription of oseltamivir, an oral neuraminidase inhibitor drug that combats influenza. The drug is currently marketed by Hoffman La Roche under the trade name Tamiflu®.

The UK Department of Health intends to stockpile 14.6m courses of the drug over the next two financial years, giving enough to treat one in four of the population – the ratio recommended by the WHO.

Canada and Australia have also bought the equivalent amounts of anti-viral drugs. The U.S. has also bought large amounts of similar drugs.

The total cost of the acquisition was not published by the government, but the BBC estimated the cost to be £180 million.

Unlike a vaccine, oseltamivir can be used to treat any strain of the influenza virus. Many new variants of the influenza virus are seen every year, and combined with the long lead times associated with the development of vaccinces, mass vaccination is frequently impractical.

Some parts of the newly-revealed plan already exist. The UK government recently gave £500,000 to the WHO for survellience of so-called ‘bird flu’ in South East Asia, a possible source for any future pandemic. The Department of Health will also continue to monitor flu-like cases seen by doctors and hospitals.

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