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European nations judged on bird flu preparedness

Written by: Staff
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LONDON, Apr 20 (Reuters) European nations are well prepared to deal with a human pandemic of bird flu although gaps remain and each country could do better, public health experts said today.

But their independent analysis of the plans of 29 countries in Europe shows a lack of coherence because nations are not communicating with each other about what they are doing.

''Europe is pretty well prepared -- it has the resources, the political commitment and most of the countries address planning along World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines,'' Dr Richard Coker of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said.

Gaps in national plans include logistical issues such as getting scarce resources like vaccines, antiviral drugs and masks to people who will need them most and providing essential services.

Identifying whether treatment or prevention is appropriate and how many antiviral drugs will be needed also needs to be improved.

''There are issues around coherence and collaboration with countries,'' Coker told Reuters.

Scientists believe the next influenza pandemic, which could kill many millions of people around the globe, is already overdue. They fear the H5N1 avian flu circulating in birds could mutate into a pandemic strain.

The virus has infected 196 people since late 2003 and killed 110 but so far it has not shown it can spread easily from person to person.

The WHO has urged nations to prepare plans for a pandemic.

RANGE OF SCORES Coker and his team analysed pandemic flu plans of 25 European Union member states, aspirants Bulgaria and Romania and Norway and Switzerland. Their results are published online by The Lancet medical journal.

The plans were judged on planning and coordination, surveillance, public health interventions, health system responses, maintenance of essential services, communication and putting plans into action.

''This is the first time anything like this has been done in depth,'' said Coker.

National scores ranged from 24 per cent to 80 per cent, with the European average 54 per cent. Stockpiles of antiviral drugs varied from 2 per cent to 54 per cent of the population of countries.

France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and Britain had the best overall plans while the Czech Republic, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Poland and Portugal were at the lower end of the scale.

Coker said there were gaps in all the national plans and all countries could improve in certain areas.

''There isn't one that stands up head and shoulders above all others,'' he added.

The findings have been reported to the European Parliament, European medical officers and the WHO, according to the researchers.

REUTERS SC PM0501

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