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Last Updated: Monday, 20 February 2006, 13:19 GMT
Quick pandemic flu test 'vital'
Sneezing
Experts fear bird flu could prompt a pandemic in humans
Attempts to protect people from flu in the event of a pandemic could be undermined by the lack of quick diagnostic tests, experts say.

Anti-viral drugs such as Tamiflu need to be given within 48 hours of symptoms appearing to be most effective.

But University of Oxford expert Dr Elspeth Garman said at present it takes days before doctors can identify a particular flu strain.

Ministers have ordered enough Tamiflu for a quarter of the population.

This is something that has not really been discussed much yet, but a quick diagnostic test will be essential if we are to protect the public
Dr Elspeth Garman, of the University of Oxford

Bird flu has killed over 90 people so far, most of them in Asia.

Experts fear the H5N1 virus, which causes bird flu, could mutate to gain the ability to pass easily from human to human.

If this happens, the world could face the threat of a flu pandemic, which could potentially claim millions of lives.

Governments and scientists across the world have already started to plan for such an event.

Several pharmaceutical firms are currently trying to develop tests but to date none have been accurate enough to make it to market.

Officials estimate they are still a year away from developing a test which could be effective within hours.

Dr Garman said: "This is something that has not really been discussed much yet, but a quick diagnostic test will be essential if we are to protect the public.

"Tamiflu is best given within 48 hours and some say within six to 12 hours."

Virus

Dr Garman also said more thought had to be given to how Tamiflu, which is not a cure but treats the symptoms and reduces the risk the disease will spread, will be distributed as people coming into doctors' surgeries could spread it further.

"In past pandemics doctors did many more home visits, maybe that is something we will have to revert to. I also think pharmacists could have a role if a quick test is developed."

And she cast doubts on the effectiveness of masks to keep bird flu at bay, pointing out people tended not to use them properly by taking them off and reusing them when the virus could be concentrated on the material.

Other experts attacked the growth in claims - many of which are found on the internet - that complimentary medicine may help to ward off bird flu.

Professor Edzard Ernst, director of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, said there was virtually no proof the likes of echinacea, garlic, green tea and cranberry-based products could help.

He said there were hundreds of products being advertised on the internet, but with little clinical evidence to back them up.

Instead, he said the best advice he could give people was to stay as healthy as possible by getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet and not drinking or smoking too much to build up the immune system.

Microbiologist Dr Ron Cutler, from the University of the East London, added while there was little evidence complementary medicine could be effective, it was still worth investing in research to see if it did work.




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