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Last Updated: Monday, 13 December, 2004, 10:33 GMT
Plans to tackle bird flu outbreak
Image of worker on Thai farm hit by bird flu
The infection is spread by birds
The UK is drawing up plans to deal with a possible outbreak of bird flu.

The Department of Health has confirmed proposals under consideration include providing anti-viral drugs to key health workers and emergency services.

Schools and cinemas in affected areas could be closed, and victims' families quarantined.

There are concerns bird flu could kills millions globally if it mutates to acquire the ability to pass from human to human.

History has taught us to take flu pandemics very seriously.
Professor Maria Zambon

At present, the virus can only be contracted by direct contact with infected animals.

However, it has shown an alarming ability to evolve at rapid speed, and the World Health Organization has warned that this ability means that the virus is highly likely at some point to pose a serious global threat.

More than 30 people died from avian influenza in Asia this year, after the disease swept through the bird population.

Other plans under consideration by the UK authorities include restricting travel to and from affected areas, health screening at ports and cancelling large sporting events, like football matches, to slow spread of the virus down.

A spokesman for the Department of Health said: "The overarching UK plan is currently being brought up to date and as part of this we're considering the role of anti-virals.

"The plan will be published once this review is completed."

Serious threat

The World Health Organization is hosting an international conference to discuss the threat posed by bird flu this week in Geneva.

Professor Maria Zambon, a virologist and head of the Health Protection Agency's Influenza Laboratory, said: "We are worried about the extent of avian influenza in south east Asia, and history has taught us to take flu pandemics very seriously."

She said that if the virus acquired the ability to pass from human to human, then up to 1% of the population might die in a serious outbreak.

The young and elderly are most likely to be vulnerable.

She warned that at present not enough vaccines were available to cope with a major outbreak.

Two leading pharmaceutical firms, Aventis-Pasteur and Chiron Corp, say they are due to start human testing of a bird flu vaccine in the near future.

Dr Douglas Fleming, Director of the Royal College of GPs' Birmingham Research Unit said: "The idea that an outbreak may happen this year, next year, or in the next 10 years, is speculative.

"But we should all welcome the fact the government is planning in case it does happen.

"I believe our best hope as far as pandemic management is concerned is to stockpile anti-virals.

"The prospect of a vaccine becoming available, in sufficient time and sufficient quantity to curtail a pandemic, seems much less likely."

How the risks of a bird flu outbreak could be reduced

Fears mount over Asian bird flu
28 Sep 04 |  Asia-Pacific
UN calls bird flu 'world crisis'
27 Sep 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Q&A: Avian flu
28 Sep 04 |  Health

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