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Britain's bird flu contingency plans criticised

Written by: Staff
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LONDON, Mar 31 (Reuters) Britain's contingency plans to deal with a major outbreak of human avian flu are too narrowly focused and do not take into account lessons learned from previous pandemics, a public health official said today.

Dr Hilary Pickles, of the Hillingdon Primary Care Trust in Middlesex, southern England, believes the plans are too optimistic.

''Normally you plan for the worst. They are asking us to plan for the middle road,'' Pickles said in an interview.

The contingency plans concentrate too much on people becoming ill and not enough on dealing with the disruption that an influenza pandemic could cause to society, she added.

''History and past events tell us there is a much broader impact.

The whole system of impact is what needs to be considered,'' said Pickles.

She added the larger impact should be driving the nation's response rather than just the narrow focus on the health response.

In an analysis published in The British Medical Journal, Pickles said pandemic planning must take into consideration the disruption it would cause to society, the effect on trade and the supply chain and the impact of absenteeism because of sickness in the business sector.

But David Salisbury, director of Immunisation at Britain's Department of Health, said the government is working closely with international partners, the European Union and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

''Action is taken as necessary to improve our preparedness so that any effects on the ability of the National Health Service to cope are minimised and business and essential services can be sustained,'' he said in the journal in response to the criticism.

Health experts fear the H5N1 virus that is circulating in birds could mutate into a form that could pass easily from person to person and cause a pandemic that could kill many millions around the world.

STOCKPILING Pickles also believes the stockpiling of antiviral drugs could be potentially counterproductive.

''It may work at an individual level. It might even work at a population level in stopping infections but the net effect could be counterproductive as a whole because it could be divisive.

Not everybody is going to get them,'' she said.

In a separate report in the journal, Professor Wim Van Damme, of the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium, also questioned the benefit of stockpiling drugs.

Van Damme and Luc Bonneux argue that stockpiling the treatments is costly and that there is no evidence of its worth.

''We should use panic, with good reason or not, to tackle the larger agenda of preventable and curable disease in the world, starting with low vaccination rates in winter flu,'' they said.

REUTERS SK RN0532

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