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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 November 2007, 12:18 GMT
Pandemic flu drug order doubles
Lab test
Some scientists believe a global flu pandemic could be imminent
Britain is doubling its stockpile of antiviral medicines in preparation for any future flu pandemic, health secretary Alan Johnson has announced.

This will be enough to treat about half the British population - the proportion scientists now believe could be hit by a pandemic.

Mr Johnson said the updated plan makes the country one of the most prepared in the world against pandemic flu.

Some scientists believe a global flu pandemic could be imminent.

Worse case scenario

Mr Johnson described the move as "defence in depth" based on a worst case scenario that up to 2.5% of people who fell ill with the flu would die.

He said the use of the anti-viral drug Tamiflu would be a key defence against pandemic flu in the weeks it would take to develop a vaccine against the culprit virus, but did not say what the financial cost would be.

Antivirals do not cure people of the flu but reduce the severity and length of the illness if taken early on.

Mr Johnson said they were also buying 14.7 million courses of antibiotics to help deal with the complications of flu that could lead to death.

The government also aims to buy 350 million surgical masks and 34 million respirators for frontline NHS and social care staff.

The measures are for a "reasonable worst-case scenario", which would see between 25% and 50% of the UK population infected.

Experts predict that up to 750,000 extra deaths could occur in the UK as a result of a pandemic, with up to half the population developing illness.

Mr Johnson said in the event of an outbreak, care would be home based - patients will stay at home initially to minimise the risk of spreading the infection to others.

Medicines would be collected by a "flu friend" nominated by the patient. Patients would see GPs or go into hospital if complications arose.

Graeme Laver, one of the world's leading flu experts and involved in the development of Tamiflu, said: "Instead of stockpiling more Tamiflu, the UK government would be better off devising a more effective procedure to get Tamiflu to people who fall ill very, very quickly."

Killer strain

Lethal global flu epidemics tend to occur three or four times a century.

Some scientists believe a new one may be imminent and could be triggered by bird flu.

So far there have been only a few hundred cases of the latest strain of avian flu, H5N1, recorded in humans.

But the fear is that this strain could mutate and spread quickly and easily between people, triggering a deadly pandemic.



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