Simulation shows Europe prepared for flu outbreak

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BRUSSELS, Mar 30 (Reuters) A European exercise to simulate an influenza pandemic showed the countries involved were reasonably prepared but exposed flaws in the system used to report national health crises, officials said.

''Europe is reasonably well prepared for a pandemic, and probably better prepared than it was 18 months ago,'' John Simpson, director for emergency preparedness at Britain's Health Protection Agency (HPA), told a news briefing yesterday.

He was presenting a report on the huge simulation, billed as Europe's first pandemic influenza exercise, that the HPA carried out across the EU's 25 countries in late November at the request of the European Commission, which also participated.

Non-EU Iceland, Norway and Switzerland also took part in the exercise to assess national authorities' abilities to cope with an influenza pandemic hitting all countries at the same time.

Under the simulation, no vaccines were available until the second of two waves of the attack, which had a death rate of 1.5 per cent. Antiviral stocks were set at November 2005 levels.

Designed to concentrate a 26-week pandemic attack into just two days, the exercise was largely desk-based but with teleconference calling involving national health officials, emailing and also responses to simulated media queries.

By the end of the exercise, millions of new influenza cases were occurring across Europe every week, with industry grinding to a halt in some areas as raw materials ran out.

Although the exercise was deemed a success, neither the HPA nor Commission officials were prepared to give details of how ready individual countries were to deal with a health crisis.

One problem was the EU's early warning and response system (EWRS), used by the Commission to alert national health authorities to larger outbreaks that have the potential to cross international borders. The flu exercise overloaded the system.

''Such an exercise had never been carried out on this scale, it was a full-blown scenario with the worst that we could be confronted with,'' said Commission spokesman Philip Tod.

''It (EWRS) is a robust tool but it's clearly not enough to cope with the sheer volume of traffic that was circulating during the exercise to reflect the genuine scenario of a pandemic,'' he told the briefing.

The exercise also raised what Commission officials called ''issues of common concern'', such as country coordination on supplies of antivirals, travel restrictions, quarantining and border closures -- sensitive areas of national sovereignty.

''Many of those questions are being discussed at ministerial level. You don't get answers to sensitive political questions during an exercise,'' Tod said.

Reuters LR SP0933

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