Britain ranks flu pandemic among top threats

Aug 8, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – A new report from the British government ranks pandemic influenza very high on the list of major security threats to the United Kingdom.

The National Risk Register, prepared by Britain's Cabinet Office, depicts pandemic flu as the biggest threat in terms of potential impact on the country, well above such risks as terrorist attacks, coastal flooding, and major industrial accidents. It says a pandemic could infect as much as half of the British population and kill as many as 750,000.

The 52-page report portrays a pandemic as somewhat less likely than terrorist attacks on transport and crowded places but just slightly less likely than severe weather. The report does not suggest a numeric probability for any given event, but it portrays the comparative likelihood and impacts of various threats on a graph.

The report is described as "an assessment of the most significant emergencies which the United Kingdom and its citizens could face over the next five years," including accidents, natural events, and malicious attacks.

The document is part of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's overhaul of homeland security strategy, according to an Associated Press (AP) report. It said Brown ordered the drafting of a list of threats shortly after he replaced Tony Blair in June 2007, arguing that previously classified assessments should be made public.

Although the report does not rank threats in order of overall seriousness, a spokeswoman for the Cabinet Office said it does indicate that a pandemic is considered the most pressing concern, the AP reported.

"Experts agree that there is a high probability of another influenza pandemic occurring, but it is impossible to forecast its exact timing or the precise nature of its impact," the report states.

Noting that 228,000 Britons died in the flu pandemic of 1918-19, the document says that history, scientific evidence, and modeling suggest that up to half the UK population could contract the flu and between 50,000 and 750,000 people could die of it. Previous government assessments also have mentioned the possibility of 750,000 deaths, the AP story said.

"Normal life is likely to face wider social and economic disruption, significant threats to the continuity of essential services, lower production levels, shortages and distribution difficulties," the document states.

Concerning preparations, it says the government has stockpiled enough oseltamivir (Tamiflu) to treat up to 25% of the population. "This should be sufficient to treat all those who fall ill in a pandemic of similar proportions to those that occurred in the 20th century," it states.

The government also has "advanced supply agreements" to buy enough doses of pandemic-specific vaccine for the whole population, if needed, but delivery of the first doses would not start until 4 to 6 months after the emergence of the pandemic, according to the report.

The document also discusses the threat of other new and emerging infectious diseases. It says the risk that a major new disease will arise in or spread to Britain is low. However, the emergence of a flu pandemic or other widespread infectious disease abroad could cause some of the 12 million British nationals living abroad to return home, which would have "a short term but significant impact" on the areas where they settle.

The Register is intended to help people improve their own preparedness for the various threats. It lists further information resources, discusses business continuity planning, and offers suggestions for individual, family, or community-based preparations.

Calling itself "a first attempt to inform the public more fully of the types of risks that we face," the report invites readers to provide feedback for consideration in future updates.

See also:

British Cabinet Office page with introductory information and links to the report
http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/reports/national_risk_register.aspx

Full text of report

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