European countries prepared for flu pandemic, but gaps remain

European governments have drawn up good plans to prepare for a flu pandemic, but major gaps remain in their ability to put the blueprints into practice, according to a study published Thursday by The Lancet medical journal.

The global spread of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu has heightened fears of a human flu pandemic. A survey of 29 European countries published in the journal's online edition found 21 had published a national preparedness plan, as advised by the World Health Organization. However, only three Britain, the Netherlands and France had tested their plans in simulation exercises.

The national plans were based on estimated death rates from flu of between 230 and 465 people per 100,000.

On the whole, the researchers found that "surveillance planning, coordination and communication were good but maintenance of essential services, putting plans into practice and public health interventions were less well-prepared."

Most also had failed to coordinate with neighboring countries, even though the interdependence of the European Union nations means that "national policies need to be coherent and harmonized rather than different," the study said.

In an accompanying editorial, Kennedy F. Shortridge, a professor emeritus of microbiology at the University of Hong Kong, said "gray areas" exist in many countries' bird flu contingency plans.

"The H5N1 virus has exposed human vulnerability," he wrote.

Hugh Pennington, president of the Society for General Microbiology in Britain, said WHO and similar organizations have little influence on governmental preparedness for a human flu pandemic sparked by bird flu.

"When the heat is on, with all these international bodies trying to coordinate things, one wonders how well things will go," he said. "Most of these governing bodies are quite small, so they can't offer much help."

The H5N1 strain of bird flu has killed or forced the slaughter of tens of millions of chickens and ducks across Asia since 2003, and recently spread to Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Health experts say it remains difficult for humans to catch H5N1, but they fear the virus could mutate into a form more easily transmitted among people and set off a flu pandemic that could kill millions worldwide.

That has not happened yet, but more than 100 people have died from the disease worldwide, reports AP.


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