Drug stockpile urged to fight flu pandemic

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Ministers were warned yesterday to begin stockpiling millions of doses of anti-viral drugs to protect Britain against a flu pandemic as researchers confirmed the first case of human to human transmission of the deadly avian virus.

Ministers were warned yesterday to begin stockpiling millions of doses of anti-viral drugs to protect Britain against a flu pandemic as researchers confirmed the first case of human to human transmission of the deadly avian virus.

The World Health Organisation said the outbreak of avian flu in south-east Asia, which infected 44 humans and caused 32 deaths in Vietnam and Thailand last year, posed a bigger threat to global health than the tsunami which devastated the region. The world was closer to an influenza pandemic now than at any time since 1968, and the present situation resembled that which led to the 1918 pandemic that probably caused more than 40 million deaths, the WHO said in a report.

Scientists who examined the case of an 11-year-old Thai girl who fell ill with the virus after handling dead chickens say she "probably" transmitted it to her aunt and to her mother. The mother had no contact with poultry or other birds and sequencing of the virus showed it was the same as that in her daughter, providing the clearest evidence so far of what doctors have long feared - that the lethal virus can be passed between people. Both mother and daughter died, but the aunt survived.

The case is reported in the online version of the New England Journal of Medicine. An editorial in the journal said the world had been given an "unprecedented warning" of a pandemic, adding: "We need to put up safeguards while the storm is still gathering."

Avian flu is twice as lethal as smallpox to humans, but has not yet acquired the capacity to spread with the rapidity of human flu. Sir John Skehel, director of the National Institute for Medical Research, said the situation in Thailand and Vietnam was alarming. Although there was no vaccine available to prevent avian flu, there were antiviral drugs that could lessen its impact and reduce spread.

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