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Brussels, 31 March 2004

Influenza and how the EU should respond to a pandemic

The European Commission has adopted a paper outlining how the EU and its Member States could work together to counter an influenza pandemic. Seasonal outbreaks of influenza occur every year in Europe. During the 20th century influenza pandemics global outbreaks causing widespread illness and a high number of deaths occurred about once every 25 years. Public health experts have warned that a new pandemic may be imminent and could present a major health threat. This concern was raised by the EU and the World Health Organisation (WHO) in the context of the current avian influenza outbreak in Asia (see IP/04/206) as some animal influenza viruses can, occasionally, mutate into highly infectious human strains. The Commission's document explains the stages, based on WHO definitions, of an influenza pandemic and sets out objectives for action. Moreover, it outlines the role of the Commission and EU Member States in pandemic preparedness planning and defines key actions in the main areas and at each of these stages. The paper also proposes areas where enhanced EU cooperation would clearly add value, including the creation of an EU network of reference laboratories for human influenza (an EU network for avian influenza already exists) and a mechanism to establish outbreak assistance teams (OATs). The importance of the EU's existing early warning and response system for infectious diseases is emphasised, as is the initiative of the European Medicines Evaluation Agency (EMEA) to create a fast track approval mechanism for vaccines. The Commission's document is intended to stimulate debate and to provide guidelines to Member States as they update their national preparedness plans.

"Europe has not seen an influenza pandemic for over 30 years. However, our public health experts and the WHO have warned us not to be complacent about the deadly threat influenza can pose. Planning and coordination are key tools for fighting disease outbreaks those who plan well will respond best. Our working document therefore outlines a plan, based on a sort of Richter-scale, for how the EU and its Member States could prepare for and respond to an influenza pandemic. I hope it will provoke a debate that rapidly leads to action, as well as giving Member States guidance for improving their own preparedness plans against influenza," said European Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner David Byrne.

The most deadly influenza pandemic in modern times was the "Spanish flu" outbreak in 1918 which killed around 20 million people worldwide. Public health experts have been warning for some time that the threat of another influenza pandemic should not be underestimated. In 1999, the WHO adopted guidelines on planning for an influenza pandemic. A number of EU Member States already have national preparedness plans based on the WHO guidelines.

Measures in place

The Commission's paper is a contribution to work already being done at EU level to support and coordinate Member States' defences against epidemics. The EU already has an Early Warning and Response System (EWRS) for the notification of major disease outbreaks in Europe and the coordination of counter-measures as well as a Public Health Preparedness and Response Planning Group (PRPG) to help Member States coordinate their plans. The new initiatives called for in the working document such as the network of human influenza reference laboratories and the outbreak assistance teams (OATs) would be integrated into the existing systems.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), which is on course to become operational in 2005 (see IP/04/427), would be expected to play a key role in major EU level actions proposed in the working document as well as in providing further advice on influenza outbreaks.

Further information

Further information on EU policy on countering influenza can be found at:

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