Bird Influenza

– in the House of Lords at 11:22 am on 23rd June 2005.

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Photo of Lord Morris of Manchester Lord Morris of Manchester Labour 11:22 am, 23rd June 2005

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What further steps they are considering to address the threat of a bird influenza pandemic.

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Government Whip

My Lords, experts continue to monitor the risk of an influenza pandemic arising from avian influenza, which is currently circulating in south-east Asia. The Government are ensuring that we are as prepared as possible. The revised UK influenza pandemic contingency plan was published in March this year and will be kept up to date. Since the issue was last raised by the noble Lord earlier this year, the Government have announced the purchase of 14.6 million courses of antiviral drugs to treat those who become ill during a pandemic. Guidance has been issued to NHS planners.

Photo of Lord Morris of Manchester Lord Morris of Manchester Labour

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. Is she aware that in February the head of the World Health Organisation in Asia, Dr Shigeru Omi, said the world was facing the "greatest possible danger" of an avian flu pandemic that was "already overdue"? Will she confirm that we then had only 100,000 courses of antiviral drugs—France already having bought 13 million—and that half of the order of 14.6 million courses the Department of Health announced in March will not be available until 2006–07? How many have we now and how many will we have by the end of 2005?

Finally, is there any action open to Ministers to speed delivery, increase manufacturing capacity in the UK, or otherwise strengthen our defences against a scourge that experts have repeatedly warned could kill up to 500,000 people in this country?

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Government Whip

My Lords, I am aware of the comments made by the doctor who my noble friend mentioned. Currently we have 100,000 courses of antiviral drugs available and it is correct to say that although we have put in an order to purchase 14.6 million courses, they will not be available immediately. But I am informed that they will be available by the end of 2006 rather than 2007.

Given my noble friend's fine record in the field of disability, he will know well the vital importance of both prevention and the minimisation of impact. That is exactly what the Government are striving to do in respect of an influenza pandemic; it is also why the contingency plan is in place, why it is continually updated and why we are buying these additional courses of antiviral treatment.

Photo of Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes Conservative

My Lords, are the Government giving any advice on what steps people should take not to catch this disease? Will they be affected by something they eat? What steps have the Government taken in terms of giving such advice?

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Government Whip

My Lords, advice of this kind is part of the contingency plan I mentioned. It is being prepared and at the moment the department deems it necessary, people will have the information to enable them to deal with a pandemic of influenza. I assure the noble Baroness that that is the case.

Photo of Baroness Masham of Ilton Baroness Masham of Ilton Crossbench

My Lords, is the Minister aware that wild geese can carry the virus? Domestic fowl then get ill while the wild ones remain well. It is a complex situation, but what progress is being made on a vaccine for this condition?

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Government Whip

My Lords, I was not aware of the situation relating to geese, but I know that it is a very complex issue. On the preparations for a vaccine, the noble Baroness will know that it is not possible to produce an exact vaccine to deal with a pandemic until we know which strain of influenza is involved. I am pleased to say that we are currently tendering to buy certain vaccines which may possibly deal with a pandemic. We are taking all the necessary action, but until we know which strain of influenza is involved in a pandemic, we cannot make a decision on the most appropriate vaccine.

Photo of Baroness Barker Baroness Barker Spokesperson in the Lords, Health

My Lords, on 14 June the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in another place said that the contingency plan would be updated and published within the next few months. When will that be done? Can she also tell us whether the department is working with the travel industry to bring to the attention of travellers to places such as China, Vietnam and Cambodia the potential risks they face in those countries from HPAI?

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Government Whip

My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct to say that the plan is being updated and that it will be published within the next few months. I regret that I cannot be more specific than that. On the part of her question relating to the travel industry, I am afraid that I do not have a specific answer either, but I shall certainly write to her and place a copy of the letter in the Library of the House.

Photo of Baroness Morgan of Drefelin Baroness Morgan of Drefelin Labour

My Lords, while it is essential that we put our house in order on the domestic front, does my noble friend agree with the suggestion made by some scientists that what we need is a planned global response to avian flu if we are to avoid a catastrophe?

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Government Whip

My Lords, I agree absolutely with my noble friend. Of course we must take action in the UK, but there must also be a global response. That is why the UK is working closely with the World Health Organisation. Recently we have put additional money into the WHO towards surveillance in south-east Asia. Also, together with the US, we co-chair the Global Health Security Action Group which comprises the G7 countries and Mexico. We are working closely with the European Union and the issue is discussed at meetings of the Health Council. Moreover, noble Lords may be interested to hear that an important step is being taken at EU level; that is, the preparation of a dossier relating to a new licence for vaccines so that once the strain has been identified, the necessary licence can be granted without delay. That is an important step forward.

Photo of Lord Roberts of Conwy Lord Roberts of Conwy Spokespersons In the Lords, Wales

My Lords, on the 14.6 million courses on order and the existing supplies, can the noble Baroness say whether these are to be stored centrally or whether there will be a regional distribution? In particular, what courses might be available in Wales?

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Government Whip

My Lords, I understand and share the noble Lord's preoccupation with Wales, but I do not know whether the antiviral drugs are going to be stored centrally or not. However, I undertake to find out and I shall notify him.