It is important to be clear about the differences between seasonal influenza and pandemic influenza. Seasonal influenza refers to the illness which occurs each winter due to human influenza viruses which are circulating in the population. Pandemic influenza occurs infrequently, when a new influenza virus emerges which is markedly different from those recently circulating in the human population; causes disease in people; and spreads easily between people because they have little or no immunity to it. This could happen through an avian influenza virus, such as the H5N1 virus, mutating into a different strain with greater affinity for people.
It is also important to remember that it is very difficult to prevent a pandemic and it could emerge anywhere in the world including the United Kingdom. The UK is working closely with World Health Organisation and other international partners to prepare for, and respond to, a potential pandemic, including by containment of an emerging pandemic virus. The WHO has a stockpile of antiviral drugs, to which the UK has contributed, which will be sent to where a pandemic develops. If deployed rapidly, these drugs may help to contain an emerging pandemic virus or slow its national and international spread.
Should a pandemic develop, the UK would follow the procedures outlined in the UK Influenza Pandemic Contingency Plan, which was published in October 2005 and is available on our website at www.dh.gov.uk/pandemicflu. The plan is currently being revised and the revised plan will be published shortly.
The Government work closely with the World Health Organization (WHO), which continues to carefully monitor the situation in countries where humans have died from infection with avian influenza. The WHO, in conjunction with the International Organisation of Animal Health, is working to ensure there is strong epidemiological surveillance in South East Asia to detect outbreaks early and on a strengthened rapid response capacity.
The United Kingdom works closely with the WHO and international partners to ensure that our planning is informed by expert advice and international consensus. The UK has tested its preparedness in several exercises. The WHO considers the UK to be at the forefront of preparedness internationally and we are continuing to consider what other measures could be taken to further improve our preparedness for a pandemic of influenza. Preparedness planning in other European countries was reported to be broadly good in an assessment published in the Lancet in 2006, although substantial variation between countries was noted.