News Roundup [abridged Versions Appear In The Paper Journal]

Stronger measures needed to avoid flu pandemic in Europe, commission warns

BMJ 2004; 328 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.328.7444.854-c (Published 08 April 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;328:854
  1. Rory Watson
  1. Brussels

    Governments in Europe must step up their defences to avoid a potential influenza pandemic, the European Commission has warned.

    Every year some 5000 to 6000 people in Europe die from seasonal outbreaks of flu. But in a pandemic?the last of which occurred in 1968?that number would rise to hundreds of thousands, says the commission.

    In the 20th century these global outbreaks caused widespread illness, and a high number of deaths occurred on average once every 25 years. Recently concerns were raised by the outbreak of avian flu in Asia, because some animal influenza viruses can occasionally mutate into highly infectious human strains.

    The threat of a pandemic is considered particularly acute for the European Union, because people, animals, and goods can circulate freely throughout all its member states. To counter this, David Byrne, the public health commissioner, has tabled a strategy that would ensure that governments, health authorities, research laboratories, and the drug industry are ready to handle any pandemic.

    “Europe has not seen an influenza pandemic for over 30 years. However, our public health experts and the WHO [World Health Organization] have warned us not to be complacent about the deadly threat influenza can pose. Planning and coordination are key tools for fighting disease outbreaks,” he said.

    The preparedness plan divides the influenza cycle into predefined phases and levels. These would be recognised on the basis of agreed criteria and would act as triggers for countermeasures.

    The plan outlines the key functions that would have to be activated to tackle a pandemic. These cover management and coordination, surveillance, prevention and intervention strategies, civil protection, communication, and research.

    “We have to make sure that national plans are coordinated. If Germany, for instance, closes down its schools, but other countries don't, then people may ask why not, and that could lead to a loss of confidence in public authorities,” explained a senior EU public health official.

    The strategy asks each member state to establish a reference laboratory for human influenza—an expensive undertaking for many EU countries, as only seven such laboratories currently exist in the EU. These would form a formal network to ensure early detection of any pandemic.

    The plan also aims to place drug companies on a higher state of alert. At the moment the EU has only six vaccine manufacturers, and officials estimate that their output would be enough to cover just 25% of the EU's population.

    To ensure that new vaccines can be authorised and distributed as quickly as possible, the commission is proposing fast track procedures for evaluating and approving the drugs that would be used in a pandemic.

    The commission's working document is at http://europa.eu.int/comm/health/index_en.html

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