Press Release

Influenza Pandemic Expert Group Reconvenes

The Influenza Pandemic Expert Group which is reviewing and updating Ireland’s influenza pandemic preparedness plan has been reconvened. The Group’s work had been delayed through 2004 by the non participation of consultants in Departmental committee meetings but an exception has now been made for the Group. At its first reconvened meeting the Expert Group agreed a programme of work to progress the updating of the pandemic plan. Once finalised the updated plan will be published.

The Expert Group is chaired by Professor William Hall, Director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory (NVRL). Professor Hall also chaired the committee which prepared the 2002 plan. Ireland’s first influenza pandemic preparedness plan was finalised in 2002. “A Model Plan for Influenza Pandemic Preparedness” was prepared by a committee under the chairmanship of Professor William Hall, Director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory (NVRL).

The 2002 plan was based on the World Health Organisation (WHO) blueprint for an Influenza Pandemic Plan published in 1999. It addresses a range of issues including prevention strategies, scientific and medical issues, and communications.

The WHO plan is currently being updated to incorporate new scientific data and experience obtained during recent outbreaks. A WHO consultation meeting held in December 2004 recommended several revisions. Our pandemic plan will be modified in line with these recommendations once they are agreed and published by the World Health Organisation.

A joint World Health Organisation and the European Commission workshop on influenza preparedness planning is taking place this week.

The overall aims of pandemic planning are to reduce morbidity and mortality, and to minimise the resulting disruption to society.

Vaccination is the principal measure for preventing influenza and reducing the impact of epidemics. It will be the primary public health intervention in the event of an influenza pandemic. However, the production of a vaccine tailored to a pandemic influenza strain could take six to nine months. Developments are underway at international level seeking to expedite this process.

Pending the availability of virus specific vaccines, antiviral drugs will be the only influenza specific medical intervention available for use in a pandemic. Antivirals can be used for prophylaxis (prevention) and for treatment.

The Government has agreed in principle that antiviral drugs should be stockpiled. The Expert Group has reviewed recommendations for the use of antivirals in line with international guidance and is forwarding advice to the Tánaiste. It is anticipated that procurement arrangements will be initiated within the next few weeks.

A national antiviral stockpile would be used to treat priority groups. Prioritisation is essential if both morbidity and mortality are to be reduced, and essential services are to be maintained thereby minimising as far as possible the disruption to society which might result from a pandemic. The priority groups include, for example, individuals who are hospitalised with influenza, people who may be more vulnerable to the virus, and key workers in essential services.

It is important to realise that pandemic planning is a dynamic process. The definition of risk is likely to change over time. This means that the recommendations for use of antivirals must be kept under review. In particular, the Expert Group will need to review the epidemiological data before final recommendations are decided in the setting of an imminent pandemic. The decision making process will be guided at all times by relevant expert advice from the European Commission and the World Health Organisation.

Pandemic planning is not solely a public health issue. It is of interest to everyone and will require a co-ordinated response from Government Departments and from all sectors of society.