U.K.: Bird flu 'could cause food shortage'

Dec. 16, 2005 at 9:00 AM
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LONDON, Dec. 16 (UPI) -- Britain faces food shortages and a breakdown in frontline services should a bird flu pandemic occur, a parliamentary committee warned Friday.

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee said Britain was better prepared for a pandemic than many other countries, but could do better.

It warned of panic-buying and food shortages if shops were not better prepared, and called for better guidance for frontline workers and a clearer policy on antiviral drugs.

The committee praised top-level health service preparations but said more needed to be done at lower levels, such as advice for GPs, primary care groups and local authorities.

A pandemic would affect every aspect of social life including schools, transport and food suppliers, it warned.

"We are alarmed at the risk of serious disruption to food supplies, and at the lack of contact between the government and the major food retailers," it said.

The committee also urged a greater focus on southeast Asia, where any pandemic is likely to originate.

International efforts to prevent a pandemic emerging should be strengthened, it said, to "nip it in the bud."

A pandemic could occur if the H5N1 virus, which is common among birds in the region and has so far killed 71 people, mutates to become communicable between humans.

The committee also urged greater investment in research for a possible vaccine, and called on the government to consider using the antiviral drug Tamiflu as a preventative treatment.

The government is stockpiling 14.6m doses -- enough to cover 25 percent of the population. But it has been set aside only for those who are already ill.

Inquiry Chairman Lord Broers said a pandemic was likely but not inevitable.

"A flu pandemic looks likelier now than at any time since the 1960s, but... with coordinated international action it can still be prevented," he concluded.

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