Law amended to deal with pandemic threat
Parliament has approved a revision of Switzerland's epidemic law, allowing the government to stock up on vaccines in preparation for a threat of an outbreak.
The Senate on Wednesday followed the House of Representatives in unanimously passing the amendment, which the cabinet had described as urgent in light of the bird flu pandemic in Asia.
The government can now finance the acquisition of vaccines and drugs before a pandemic breaks out or even before threat levels get serious.
Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin underlined that the health of citizens was paramount for any state and for that reason the government needed even more powers regarding pandemic prevention. Public health affairs in Switzerland are usually managed at cantonal level.
The revision enables the government to support financially the manufacture of pandemic medication within Switzerland. In addition, items such as masks can now be guaranteed for the public.
Cantons remain responsible for the distribution of drugs.
The government now wants the amended law - which was triggered by the outbreak of the respiratory disease, Sars, in Asia three years ago - to come into force as soon as possible. Negotiations with vaccine manufacturers can begin as soon as this happens.
Couchepin reiterated that it was not a question of if Switzerland is affected by a pandemic, but when. Currently the greatest threat comes from bird flu, which has killed almost 144 people in Asia.
Switzerland's bird flu plan – described by the Federal Health Office as a "flexible working tool" for authorities, business and the general public – proposes detailed guidelines, organisational plans and responses in the event of a bird flu pandemic.
Switzerland has built up a stock of the anti-viral drug Tamiflu to treat more than two million people and protect health workers.
If an outbreak looks inevitable, ten per cent of this overall stock will be distributed to the cantons to prevent shortages, according to the health office.
The government announced at the end of June that it had bought eight million doses of a new pre-pandemic vaccine to protect the population against bird flu.
The Swiss plan is based on the updated preparations of the World Health Organization (WHO). It was drawn up by the Federal Health Office in collaboration with cantonal authorities, a flu working group and numerous experts.
swissinfo with agencies
In Switzerland, public health affairs are managed at cantonal level. The country therefore has 26 different health systems – one for each canton.
In accordance with the constitution, the government can also implement health measures at national level.
In particular it can become actively involved in combating extremely dangerous transmissible diseases.
It can also pass laws concerning foodstuffs, medicines, drugs or chemical substances that endanger the public's health.
According to the latest WHO update, there have been 247 cases of human bird flu in ten countries since 2003, with 144 deaths. Some 200 million birds have died or been culled.
No cases of human bird flu have been reported in Switzerland.
According to the latest government plan, 1.85 million people could become infected with bird flu if the virus is able to pass from human to human.
In the event, 46,000 people would be admitted to hospital and around 7,400 people would die.
According to the government, such a pandemic would cost an estimated SFr2.3 billion ($1.8 billion).
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