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Irish bird flu pandemic is now ‘inevitable’, admits Harney

By Ann Cahill, Europe Correspondent, Vienna
A BIRD FLU pandemic is inevitable in Ireland, Health Minister and Tánaiste Mary Harney has admitted.

Ms Harney attended an emergency meeting of EU health ministers in Vienna yesterday to co-ordinate their actions as bird flu was suspected in France, which would be the first EU country to have it in domestic poultry.

Asked if a pandemic was now inevitable in Ireland, she said: "Ireland could not escape avian flu. The experts say it’s inevitable."

She added that it would not be in the next six or 12 months, but the fact the virus is in the bird population makes it inevitable.

Up to now Government ministers have been playing down the possibility of an outbreak, with Agriculture Minister Mary Coughlan saying it was possible the country could escape it.

The Department of Health has placed an order for 400,000 doses to treat 200,000 people with a vaccine developed from a strain of H5N1 found in humans in Vietnam.

Ms Harney said there will not be time to go through normal drug testing and licensing for the vaccine before making it available.

"In case of emergency we would not have the time to go through the usual approval procedures," she said.

There would be no option but to use it in the event of a pandemic but it would be offered to people on a voluntary basis. The most at risk in the population would be offered it first, along with those in the first line of defence, including health and veterinary workers, the elderly and children.

The vaccine will be manufactured by British pharmaceutical company Baxter International and Chiron, a US company being bought out by Novartis. It has been ordered in conjunction with the British health department.

In addition to this front line vaccine the department is making arrangements to buy a second anti-viral. There are over one million doses of the ordinary flu vaccine Tamiflu either in the country or on order.

EU health ministers at their meeting yesterday in Vienna agreed a communication campaign to alert people, and especially children, to the dangers of contact with sick birds.

Ms Harney said she was anxious not to confuse or alarm people and she had no plan for such a campaign in Ireland at present. The risk of infection from birds to humans was still very low, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) alert level at just 4 - level 6 indicates human pandemic.

She added, "The WHO has a meeting next week and we will take whatever advice about a communication campaign from them."

She was not enthusiastic about an EU plan to share anti-virals to create a common stockpile of vaccines to help out any country not fully prepared.

"The national interest comes first," she said but added we have an obligation to show solidarity and are not opposed to sharing. She said she looked forward to seeing proposals the European Commission is to produce in the next few weeks.