The millions of tourists coming to London for the Olympics will dramatically increase the risk that a flu pandemic in Britain might spread, according to new research to be published this week.
For Britain is ranked second in the world, after Singapore, in terms of the risk of an avian or swine flu outbreak spreading, according to a new study of more than 200 countries by the risk analysts Maplecroft.
Experts warn that the scale of the threat is vast. “There is little pre-existing natural immunity to H5N1 infection in the human population. Should the virus improve its transmissibility, the entire human population could be vulnerable to infection,” states the research - citing previous warnings from the World Health Organization.
Britain is at ‘medium risk’ of a pandemic emerging here where avian or swine flu jumps the species barrier and can be spread from person to person. South East Asia poses the highest risk in terms of the actual emergence of a strain of influenza, with countries such as Cambodia, China and Vietnam rated as ‘extreme risk’.
But factors such as crowded cities, a growing population, and the sheer amount of travel in and out of the UK provide ideal conditions for a virus to spread if it makes it to the UK.
In 2011, more than 69 million people used Heathrow Airport, while nearly 100,000 a day flew in and out of Gatwick.
During the Olympics, almost 800,000 people will use London’s public transport system each day.
Alyson Warhurst, chief executive of Maplecroft, said: “South East Asia is the region where an influenza pandemic is most likely to emerge. People travelling from these high risk countries for the London Olympic Games, have the potential to heighten the risks for the UK if an outbreak were to occur.”
She warned: “Such an influx of visitors exacerbates the already substantial risk of influenza spread in the country. It is therefore vital that the UK maintains its strong ability to manage outbreaks through strategic approaches, such as UK Pandemic Preparedness Strategy 2011.”
With plans already in place and well-developed health systems, Britain and other EU member states account for most of the 30 countries assessed as being ‘low risk’ in terms of not being able to cope with an outbreak.
The government’s strategy, released last November, warns that the “collective efforts of society” will need to be mobilised to deal with an influenza pandemic, something it describes as “one of the greatest threats facing the UK.”
It outlines how modern travel “affords opportunities for the virus to be rapidly spread across the world, even before it has been identified” and that the time needed to develop a vaccine means “it almost certainly will not be possible to contain or eradicate a new virus in its country of origin or on arrival in the UK.”
Health officials are already on high alert in the run-up to the Olympics, with the Health Protection Agency having increased its surveillance work to detect any signs of a virus. It has set up a monitoring system of hospital admissions and concerns raised with GPs, to alert staff to the first signs of mass contagion.
More than 330 people have died worldwide since bird flu was first detected in 2003. At its peak in 2006 it was present in 63 countries and there were 4,000 outbreaks of the disease in wild birds and poultry. Measures to halt the spread included mass culls on farms where infections were found or suspected. Some 400 million domestic poultry were slaughtered. The most high-profile case in Britain was that of a Bernard Matthews turkey farm in Holton, Suffolk, where 160,000 turkey chicks were gassed in 2007 to prevent the virus spreading any further.