Jo Revill, health editor
Sunday March 27, 2005
Offices and schools across Britain could be closed to protect workers if bird flu arrives, the Ministry of Defence's chief scientist has warned.
Professor Roy Anderson, a leading infectious diseases expert, said politicians will face difficult decisions about how far to close down Britain if it is struck by a highly contagious form of the disease.
'I have never seen the international community as agitated about anything as this,' he told The Observer . The disease has a mortality rate of around 76 per cent, and the average age of death is 17. 'Although it sounds alarmist, the balanced view is that we are overdue a major pandemic,' Anderson said.
The government has announced it is to stockpile an anti-viral drug that can help both to prevent and to treat the disease. However, there will not be sufficient doses to cover the population for another two years because of demand from other countries.
'We are a highly connected society,' said Anderson. 'The major risk areas are the centres of the population. If it arrived in London, it is most likely we would have a few days before it would be seated in most major centres of population'. The warning from such a senior figure is likely to increase demands for clarity over Britain's plans for such an emergency.
A special committee has been set up to talk to sectors such as schools and workplaces but there has been little open debate. Canada, by contrast, has invited the public to give their views, after having gone through the enormous logistical difficulties of the Sars epidemic of last year. Anderson, who holds a chair in infectious diseases epidemiology at Imperial College, London, is convinced that it is a question of when, rather than if, a flu pandemic arises. The fear is that the virus will then start to acquire human genes as it mutates.
A particular subtype of avian virus, H5N1, is causing alarm. The first presence in a human was confirmed in January 2004, and 48 people across south-east Asia have now contracted the disease. From these, doctors calculate the virus has a mortality rate of between 70 and 80 per cent.
There has not yet been a confirmed case of the disease spreading from human to human, although experts have suspicions over two family clusters. On Thursday a 17-year-old Vietnamese girl died, raising the region's death toll to 48. As there have been no bird flu outbreaks among poultry in the village, officials said they were unsure how the teenager contracted the disease.
Since December 14 people have died from bird flu in Vietnam, while Cambodia has reported two deaths, including one this week. A team of health experts is investigating a cluster of suspected cases in Quang Binh, Vietnam.