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Europe warned on flu pandemic planning

Europe needs at least two more years to be prepared adequately for a pandemic flu outbreak in humans, according to the head of the European Union agency in charge of tackling infectious disease.

In an interview with the FT, Zsuzsanna Jakab, director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, said it would take two to three years to be “much better prepared to respond”, even if the current political momentum could be maintained. Speaking ahead of the launch of a report by her agency analyzing pandemic planning across the EU, she warned that countries still needed to do much more to prepare for pressures beyond their health systems and to step up sharply cooperation with each other. She said countries needed to get their written national plans operational so they worked at the local level; and ensure plans between and within countries worked in a co-ordinated fashion. “There are certain issues that cannot be solved by one country, and they have to work together across borders,” she said, stressing she wanted to strengthen collaboration with the EU’s close neighbors – including with Turkey, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and Russia – in an effort to prepare for a pandemic.

Jakab said the UK, France and Germany, as well as Slovenia and the Nordic countries, were better prepared, while EU accession states in central and eastern Europe presented “a bigger challenge”. However, she said no European country had yet published a pandemic plan across all government departments, with most still focused on the health system, while only 14 had undertaken joint work with neighboring countries. She warned that while EU and national leaders had helped to provide significant support in recent months, there was a challenge to maintain efforts at a time when avian flu in Europe had been less significant. Just a few outbreaks of H5N1 in birds – notably in the UK and Hungary – have taken place in recent months within the EU, although the infection continues to be endemic in animals in parts of Asia and has killed 167 people and infected 274 worldwide. A survey of 25 EU states plus Iceland and Norway to be released on Thursday analyzing pandemic planning up until last October highlighted that just 13 had contingency plans for non-essential health services, and only 15 had conducted an exercise to test plans nationally in the health sector. Jakab called for in-creased efforts to tackle seasonal influenza, including greater use of flu vaccines, which would help prepare for a pandemic. Just 18 countries currently have a national pandemic vaccination strategy developed. (