Czech Republic takes precautions against possible flu pandemic

Romania, photo: CTK

The World Health Organisation has advised countries to prepare for a possible flu pandemic which could kill between 2 and 7 million people worldwide. Such a pandemic could break out if a bird flu virus crosses with human flu strains. With newly reported cases of bird flu in Eastern Europe, the Czech Republic in line with the EU has taken precautions.

Romania,  photo: CTK
Since 2003 bird flu has killed over 60 people and millions of birds in Asia. Scientists have warned that if the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus gets a chance to cross with human flu strains it will become highly contagious as no one will be immune to it. On Monday, the European Union announced an immediate ban on live bird imports from Turkey where an outbreak of avian or bird flu was reported. Several cases were also reported in Romania. Josef Duben of the Czech State Veterinary Authority.

"We stopped all imports of poultry, birds, eggs and feathers from Turkey even though they were negligible. If the Romanian cases are confirmed as bird flu, we will comply with the European Commission's decision on similar bans together with the rest of the EU."

Photo: CTK
Josef Duben says there is no reason to panic but the State Veterinary Authority does not underestimate the importance of preventative measures, such as testing birds imported from third countries and more frequent checkups of farm poultry and wild birds, especially in areas where migratory birds could come in contact with the local bird populations.

Meanwhile countries around the world are building up stockpiles of antiviral drugs and working on bird flu vaccines. The Swiss company that produces the most effective antiviral drug available for avian flu is planning to double its production by the end of 2005 over last year's levels. The Czech Chief Hygiene Officer Michael Vit says, though, that there is no point in stockpiling drugs for 10 million Czechs before we know how a potential new virus would react to them. Mr Vit, on the other hand, stresses the importance of vaccination against normal human influenza.

"I would recommend to everyone to get vaccinated. Even vaccination from last year could alleviate the symptoms of this year's flu strain. But more importantly if the population is sufficiently vaccinated, the human flu virus does not circulate in the population and therefore has less opportunity to cross with a bird flu strain and become transmittable from human to human. That's why not only we, Czech doctors, but also the EU authorities, are calling on people to get vaccinated. It is one of the precautions against a global flu epidemic."

Only six to seven percent of Czechs are vaccinated against human influenza whereas in Western Europe it is over 20 percent.

The Chief Hygiene Officer Michael Vit says that once a new, mutated strain emerges, it will take around three months to develop a vaccine against it. According to Mr Vit the Health Ministry is now in talks with pharmaceutical companies over supplies of the vaccine in case of a flu epidemic outbreak.