Swiss press on with bird flu preparations

The Swiss army has also been preparing for a bird flu pandemic Keystone

Health officials say that preparations for dealing with an outbreak of human bird flu are very advanced and an updated national pandemic plan will be published in June.

This content was published on May 16, 2006 - 21:33

They also said in Geneva on Tuesday that they were in close contact with the Swiss business community to avert an economic meltdown in the event of a bird flu pandemic.

"Right now we are well prepared but you can never be ready," said Gaudenz Silberschmidt, vice-director of the Federal Health Office.

Two weeks ago the Swiss authorities lifted a two-and-a-half-month ban on keeping poultry outdoors due to the reduced risk of bird flu.

Silberschmidt, who saw no need for further protective measures in the immediate future, said Switzerland was continuing to strengthen its alert systems for all disease outbreaks.

He added that negotiations were ongoing to secure future bird flu vaccines and repeated that the Swiss had sufficient stocks of the anti-viral drug Tamiflu to treat "everyone who falls sick".

In addition, he said the health office was working closely with the business community and other sectors to ensure the country was kept running during a pandemic.

"If you take the scenario of the Hong Kong flu pandemic, we would have two million deaths and not hundreds of millions, but we would have everyone staying at home and businesses going bankrupt because of a panic reaction," he told swissinfo.

"We might not have a serious public health situation – even though two million is a very high number – but we would go into global depression, and we have to prepare for this kind of scenario."

Threat remains

On Monday global health experts attending a three-day conference in Sweden said the spread of bird flu in Europe and Africa was likely to slow down over the summer months.

They said that while the deadly H5N1 strain had spread to 30 new countries since January – mainly in Europe and Africa – the decreased movement of migratory birds in the summer meant the number of new cases of the disease would probably fall over the next few months.

But the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) stressed that the lull in cases did not mean that the threat of a mutated virus capable of jumping from human to human had disappeared.

Isabelle Nuttal, WHO programme manager for epidemic and pandemic alert and response, said on Tuesday that, while transmission to humans was difficult, the virus could change suddenly.

"If it does that we will be facing a pandemic," she said. "But we can be optimistic that as the months go by and we don't have human-to-human transmission, this gives countries more time to prepare. Each month that passes is a month gained."

Nuttal added that experts still agreed that there would be a human bird flu pandemic, but no one could say when or what impact it would have.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont in Geneva

In brief

An order to keep poultry indoors was first enforced in Switzerland between October 25 and December 16, 2005. The ban was applied again on February 20 this year and lifted on May 1.

On Tuesday Swiss pharmaceutical firm Roche announced that the South African company Aspen would produce a generic version of its anti-viral drug Tamiflu to help Africa prepare for a possible pandemic.

Switzerland has stocked enough Tamiflu to treat 25% of the population.

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Key facts

According to the latest WHO update, there have been 208 cases of human bird flu including 115 deaths.
The WHO says most human cases have occurred when people have been in direct contact with infected poultry.
No cases of human bird flu have been reported in Switzerland.

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