Page last updated at 14:39 GMT, Thursday, 13 August 2009 15:39 UK

Battling swine flu in cyberspace

Inder Bugarin
BBC Mundo, Brussels

Grab from flu game, Erasmus Medical Centre
The game shows how well, or badly, a player handled the outbreak

Like many other nations, the Netherlands is battling swine flu on many fronts.

At the forefront of the fight against the pandemic are the ranks of specialised doctors and millions of anti-viral tablets. But it also has one unusual weapon to call on - a videogame designed by experts at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam.

Dubbed "The Great Flu", the game is based on the threat that the emergence of a new flu virus and its rapid spread across the globe would pose to humanity.

"The game is based on the need to increase public awareness to the threat posed by a pandemic and the measures in place to contain it," said Albert Osterhaus, head of virology at the Erasmus Medical Centre and one of the experts involved in creating the game.

"In no way is it intended to be a substitute for any advice given by the medical authorities," he said. "Its purpose is simply to create another avenue of information."

The game is played online and gives players the unenviable task of containing, as much as they can, the spread of an unknown flu virus.

The more time passes, the more people become infected, more people die and more nations are hit.

The player has various tools to try and halt the pandemic. For instance, early warning systems can be established and citizens warned about the risks. Also available are face masks and anti-viral drugs, as well as improved research centres and medical services.

The player is also given the option to close schools and airports, suspend businesses and quarantine infected members of the population.

Injection, Getty
Trials have started of a vaccine that can combat swine flu

Players face tough choices because starting funds are limited to £2bn. Sweeping actions such as closing airports, beefing up research and isolating sick individuals does not come cheap. Strategy is key.

To present people with a range of challenges different, and more virulent, bugs can be chosen to combat.

An introductory video for the game reminds players of the impact of past pandemics, such as the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 which is estimated to have left 40 million dead.

As of 6 August 2009, swine flu, or H1N1 strain of the influenza virus, is thought to have infected more than 177,457 people and killed more than 1,400. The first cases of it were found in Mexico and the US and it was declared a pandemic on 11 June by the World Health Organisation.

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