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Millions face death from bird flu pandemic

17th March 2005, 15:45

Millions face death in flu pandemic, says expert

A major global flu outbreak is 'overdue' and the failure to eradicate the bird virus suggests the situation is now perilous, said Dr Shigeru Omi, head of the WHO in Asia.

His comments will add to concerns that the British Government has failed to stockpile enough vaccine.

Experts have repeatedly warned that bird flu, known as H5N1, could claim up to 100million lives worldwide and up to 500,000 in the UK - but the Government has only 100,000 treatment courses of antivirals.

France has bought 13million courses and Mayor of London Ken Livingstone announced an order of 100,000 - at a cost of 1million - for the capital's emergency and transport workers.

The Department of Health's contingency plan for dealing with a flu pandemic has not been updated since March 1997, whereas the US, Canada, France, Belgium and Australia have all recently outlined preparatory measures.

'Virus would sweep the world'

Speaking at a conference on bird flu in Vietnam, Dr Omi said flu pandemics have typically occurred every 20 to 30 years. But it is nearly 40 years since the last one.

"We at WHO believe that the world is now in the gravest possible danger of a pandemic," he said.

"The longer the virus is circulating in animals, including chickens and ducks, the greater the risk of human cases - and consequently, the higher the risk of a pandemic."

Experts fear that if a person with human flu caught bird flu, the two could combine to produce a virus that would sweep the world.

Laurence Tiley, of Cambridge University, warned: "The whole population would be completely naive and vulnerable to it. We know that flu has done this sort of thing in the past.

"I think pandemic flu is knocking on the door," added Professor Albert Osterhaus, of Erasmus University Hospital, Rotterdam.

"It is really a question of when it is going to happen, not if it is going to happen."

Nine months for stocks to arrive

The virus has so far killed 45 people - 32 in Vietnam, 12 in Thailand and one in Cambodia - and the mortality rate among infected humans is thought to be as high as 76 per cent.

Confirmation of the first human to human transmission last month has increased fears that the virus will soon break out of South East Asia.

Tory health spokesman Andrew Lansley said that if the Government put in an order for the antiviral drug Tamiflu now it could take nine months for stocks to arrive.

That contrasted sharply with the Government's reaction to the threat of smallpox in the wake of September 11, when it awarded a 20million contract to Labour donor Lord Drayson's firm PowderJect.

"Conservatives have repeatedly pressed Ministers, and pointed out that other Governments have taken action, but we are still waiting for them to deliver the preparatory plan," said Mr Lansley.

A Department of Health spokesman said any plans to buy more vaccines would be included in an updated contingency plan to be published 'very soon'.


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