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Last Updated: Monday, 17 October 2005, 15:23 GMT 16:23 UK
Britain 'prepared' for bird flu
Chickens
A contingency plan for bird flu is to be announced
Britain is one of the best prepared countries to deal with a human pandemic of bird flu should one occur, the health secretary has told MPs.

Patricia Hewitt was confident enough was being done and stressed the disease was "no direct threat" to humans yet.

Meanwhile, a UK lab has confirmed a new cluster of infected Romanian birds.

Greece's agriculture ministry has also reported the country's first case at a turkey farm on the Aegean Sea island of Oinouses, near the Turkish coast.

However, it is not yet clear whether the latest cases found in Greece and in the 12 dead swans in Romania are the lethal H5N1 strain that experts fear could mutate to spread easily between humans.

I'm satisfied that we are making exactly the preparations that we need
Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt

The European Commission has ordered urgent tests on dead birds found in Croatia.

And In Asia, H5N1 has been detected in sparrows in Thailand.

Each new outbreak in birds increases the risk to humans, although the threat to people remains low at present, say experts.

On Sunday, Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson warned if such a mutation did happen a bird flu pandemic could kill 50,000 people in the UK.

But he said this was unlikely to happen this winter.

Patricia Hewitt told the House of Commons on Monday Britain was doing all it should be to prepare for any future outbreak.

Plans were in hand to stockpile drugs and eventually to develop a new vaccine, she said.

Updated guidance on how to prepare for a possible flu pandemic will be published by the government on Thursday.

Mrs Hewitt told the Commons: "I'm satisfied that we are making exactly the preparations that we need."

New vaccine

Scientists from the MRC, in a team led by Professor Colin Blakemore, are expected to visit China, Vietnam and Hong Kong to find out how best to tackle any outbreak.

QUICK GUIDE

Their findings will be presented to an international conference in London in December.

The organisation, which discovered the flu virus in 1933, is considered a world leader in the field.

The UK has so far stockpiled 2.5m doses of anti-viral drugs.

Ms Hewitt said the government was also procuring two to three million doses of vaccine against H5N1 as "a precautionary measure".

Although this probably would not protect against a mutant strain that is able to spread easily between humans, it could be used in research and be given to priority groups, such as health service workers, until experts are able to make a more exact vaccine.

Conservative Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said France and Australia had already tended for the supply of a national stockpile of disposable gloves and masks to use to limit the spread of infection should an outbreak occur.

He recommended the UK do the same.

'Constant vigilance'

Professor Blakemore said it was "almost certain" that avian flu would reach the UK.

"How we deal with it will depend on how well we are preparing now."

He said international co-ordination was essential to combat the spread of bird flu.

"It is very important that viruses should be identified as quickly as possible as new strains emerge.

HAVE YOUR SAY
There is absolutely no need for panic
Chief executive of the Medical Research Council Professor Colin Blakemore

"That is crucial in understanding how the disease might spread, both amongst birds and human beings.

"It is also important for the development of vaccines and the development of treatments.

"It's a matter of constant vigilance. There is absolutely no need for panic."

However, he said the full extent of the disease in China might not be known.

UK doctors said the public appeared calm about the situation, but that more eligible people had been coming forward for their regular annual flu jab, which was good news.

GP fears

Dr Michael Dixon, Devon GP and chairman of the NHS Alliance, said: "We are seeing a much greater awareness about flu in general. I suspect that is a knock-on effect from the talk about the avian flu."

The influenza vaccine does not protect against bird flu. It is free and recommended for those over 65s and people with health problems such as chronic heart or chest conditions, asthma, diabetes or kidney disease.

The Department of Health said it would be publishing avian flu advice for GPs on its website on Thursday.

Dr Tim Ringrose from the doctors' website Doctors.net.uk said some GPs were concerned about knowing what to tell patients.

"GPs want to have the most up-to-date information so they can reassure patients," he said.


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Watch Patricia Hewitt as she makes her remarks



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