Health experts met to review how well the EU is prepared for an outbreak of avian influenza and what can be done to limit the damage if this happens.
Previous outbreaks have been contained in Europe, but more are predicted
Health professionals meeting at the 2006 European Congress on Disaster Management in Bonn all agreed that it is not a question if an outbreak of bird flu will happen, but when.
They recommended establishing a common EU position and making sure there are clear communication channels between member countries. They also addressed stockpiling of Tamiflu, one of the only known drugs that can cure bird flu symptoms.
Avian influenza, or the H5N1 virus, began in Southeast Asia in mid-2003, with the disease initially transmitted between birds. However, the virus "crossed the species barrier" to humans. Of 244 people infected with the virus, 143 have died, according to the World Health Organization.
Kurth hopes a pandemic could be avoided if birds are vaccinated
Fatalities are inevitable, and that the key to limiting the number of deaths is planning for an outbreak and having enough vaccinations for the whole population, said Reinhard Kurth, the president of Germany's Robert Koch Institute. Kurth added that priority for vaccinations should be given to health workers and infants "who are more susceptible to death.'
"Four million dosages can be produced in a week, so it would take 20 weeks to inoculate the entire German population," he said. "The (German) federal government has said it is willing to invest a lot on money in vaccinations on a mass scale."
Of the $1.9 billion (1.49 billion euros) the international community has pledged to management of avian influenza, the EU has contributed 211 million euros. The European Commission has collaborated with member states and the World Health Organization to develop EU preparedness planning. Kurth said he is hopeful that one of the solutions to minimizing the outbreak will be getting farmers to vaccinate all of their birds.
Boosting Tamilflu orders?
Tamiflu is regarded as the most effective drug to couteract the H5N1 virus
Hoffmann-La Roche, the sole supplier of Tamiflu has quadrupled its production capacity over the past two years. However, current supply is thought to cover just two percent of the world population.
Jane Lahl and Isabel Burckhardt from Hoffmann-La Roche Pharmaceuticals said orders for the drug need to increase because currently there is not enough for the EU population. Lahl said drugs are the only option to containing a full-blown pandemic, but notably she is a spokeswoman for a pharmaceutical company.
Lahl and Burckhardt both stressed that working out the logistics of distributing the drug "in an uncomplicated way" was imperative. Burckhardt also encouraged a continuation of production levels.
"We cannot simply open the valve when the demand increases," she said.
World-wide warning systems
Communication is key --experts at a conference in early 2006
Massimo Ciotti of the EU center for disease and prevention control response unit said EU countries should not be spending all the money on just one drug, like Tamiflu, but there should be a range of measures implemented. He promoted warning and information systems worldwide and global communication, to prevent a pandemic if there is an outbreak.
Ciotti also urged that it was imperative the EU establish a unified position and added that EU preparations are on track. But there are many aspects that need to be solved, such as who would be prioritized for vaccinations if there was not enough for everyone, he said.
"Would it be the policeman or the child?" he asked. "There are issues of closing borders if Tamiflu is distributed in some countries and not others. But one thing is clear: We need to distribute vaccination quickly after an outbreak.
"There are over 480 million people across the EU and there are substantial differences across different countries with demographics, geography and available services and health systems," he said. "Now there is free movement across borders. This means there will be free movement of diseases."