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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 March 2006, 18:25 GMT
'Military-style' flu network call
Wild swan
Wild birds, including swans, have been hit by avian flu
A military-style surveillance network should be set up in developing countries to identify early signs of a human flu pandemic, US doctors say.

The labs should be modelled on ones set up after World War II, they add.

The call, by US military doctors, is made in an article published in the journal Nature.

In addition, UK scientists are to investigate if there are gaps in the scientific understanding of flu and how it spreads across the world.

What we want to be sure of is that we use as much expertise as possible to identify any gaps in our understanding
Sir John Skehel, Medical Research Council

The doctors want to see a network of rapid-response laboratories set up based on US Naval Medical Research Units (NAMRUs), which were put in place after WWII to protect American service men and women from infectious diseases overseas.

The doctors from the US Department of Defence Global Emerging Infections Surveillance and Response System have since been working with countries and the World Health Organization (WHO), and have made important contributions to infection control strategies as well the development of vaccines and treatments.

But only a few such labs still operate, with many - such as those in Panama, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Congo, Uganda, Ethiopia and Malaysia closing.

The American doctors, led by Dr Jean-Paul Chretien and Dr David Blazes, argue that a new network of state-of-the art laboratories mirroring the NAMRU model is now urgently needed.

These would support the existing work of the World Health Organization and regional collaborating centres.

It is hoped they would pick up the earliest signs of human-to-human transmission of a pandemic flu strain, which could occur in a very rural area.

Writing in Nature, they said: "The world needs such laboratories now, more than ever, as platforms for sustained epidemic detection and response - for avian influenza, and as-yet unknown diseases.

"The time has come to build on their experience and create a new generation of multilateral, WHO-aligned laboratories as a front-line of defence against future pandemics."

'More weapons'

In a separate development, the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences is to look at the science which has informed policy development and planning in the UK for what would happen in a flu pandemic, particularly in relation to the avian flu virus H5N1.

It will examine if there are other areas of science, or other pieces of specific research, which can inform such policies and plans for the immediate future and in the longer term.

Particular areas to be examined include whether it would be possible to develop new drugs to give doctors more weapons in the armoury against flu, and if it would be feasible to develop a vaccine which was effective against various strains of flu.

Part of the concern over a flu pandemic is that an effective vaccine could not be developed until a strain which could spread between people emerged.

It will also look at whether scientific 'modelling', designed to show how flu might spread across the world, could be improved - perhaps with information from other areas of science.

Sir John Skehel, director of the National Institute for Medical Research for the Medical Research Council, who is leading the study, said: "What we want to be sure of is that we use as much expertise as possible to identify any gaps in our understanding."

The academies will publish their report in the summer.




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