Europe prepares for swine flu pandemic | Jul 17, 2009

Ian Traynor in Brussels

Germany today followed moves by France and Britain to order vaccine stockpiles worth billions of euros to treat swine flu when the full-scale pandemic hits hard in the autumn, as is widely expected.

But with the number of confirmed cases varying widely across Europe and no other country in the EU known to be even close to the rate of infection in Britain, vaccine plans are also vastly different and growing in controversy.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control in Stockholm said today that there were 15,774 confirmed cases of swine flu in the EU plus Norway, Switzerland, and Iceland, with two-thirds of those cases in Britain alone.

The UK is the only country in Europe with confirmed cases running to five figures. But why? “That’s the million-dollar question,” said a European Commission health official engaged in monitoring the crisis and European responses.

Experts and public health officials say it is too early to conclude whether there are ethnic or genetic factors at play, and point to travel habits as a possible cause of the British leadership of the European swine flu league table.

Apart from Spain, whose close links with Mexico and Latin America may explain its four fatal cases of swine flu, there have been no more confirmed deaths from the disease in continental Europe. But 29 have died in Britain.

The confirmed cases in Europe range from 10,649 in Britain to five in Lithuania, according to the ECDC. Britain’s nearest rival, Spain, has 1,222 confirmed cases.

But in Brussels and across the EU, authorities are braced for much bigger infection rates as the school year ends and the height of the mass tourist season looms. Germans are Europe’s biggest tourists, and Frankfurt is one of the busiest air hubs in Europe, while France, Italy and Greece are some of the main magnets for mass tourism.

“No one can tell how the virus will develop in the weeks ahead,” Klaus Vater, the German health ministry spokesman, told journalists today.

As of this week, 11 of the 27 countries in the EU have given up trying to prevent swine flu in favour of “mitigation”. “You can’t preempt the outcome. It can’t be contained. That’s a fact,” said the commission official. “They are not trying to contain the virus any more, just deal with it.”

Amid fears that the pandemic will overwhelm public health, education, and economic infrastructures, a race between nations has started to secure the vaccines. It has the potential to turn nasty.

Up to 70% of the world’s stocks of swine flu vaccine will be manufactured in Europe. The German order is for 50m doses, enough to treat around a quarter of the population. That is in line with the World Health Organisation’s calls for moderation in stockpiling vaccines since there are not enough doses to go around.

Margaret Chan, the WHO director general, warned this week that poor countries would suffer as wealthier nations bought up the available treatments. But Britain has ordered 132m vaccine doses, enough for the entire population to be treated twice. This week France and Portugal announced similar procurement plans in the face of the WHO recommendations.

The European commission and other EU states are also keen to try to pool resources to help EU countries whose preparations have been inadequate. Britain, which sees itself as very well prepared, is resisting such efforts.

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