Pandemic tracking 'must improve'

Swine Flu Experts call for investment to boost diagnosis and reporting in next outbreak.

Swine flu pandemic was not a ‘direct parallel’ to a serious outbreak (AMI IMAGES/SPL)
Swine flu pandemic was not a ‘direct parallel’ to a serious outbreak (AMI IMAGES/SPL)

The UK must improve its ability to track a pandemic in real time before the next major outbreak, an expert has warned.

At the Swine Flu: One Year On conference in London last month, a DoH adviser called for investment in diagnosis and reporting of cases to prevent the uncertainty seen in last year's outbreak.

Epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London said future strains could cause more deaths and present different challenges. 'We do need to be better at judging particularly severity in real time,' he said.

Experts agreed the pandemic had been well managed, but warned it was mild and not a 'direct parallel' for a more serious outbreak.

There was significant uncertainty about the nature of the virus as the pandemic unfolded.

At a recent RCGP pandemic debrief, GPs complained about constantly changing and sometimes conflicting DoH advice.

Professor Lindsey Davies, DoH national director of pandemic influenza preparedness for England, has admitted the DoH struggled to distil mixed messages from scientists into clear advice.

Professor Ferguson said: 'More rapid diagnosis might in future enable some of this large degree of uncertainty to be overcome.' New serology techniques use saliva rather than blood samples and could help to track true infection rates in the population in future, he added.

Experts also defended the DoH's initial 65,000 death toll figure as 'not unreasonable'. The DoH was criticised for the estimate, which was down-graded to just 1,000 in January.

But Professor Peter Openshaw of Imperial College London warned care must be taken not to downplay an outbreak.

'Politicians have got to resist the temptation of throttling back next time because they're afraid of being criticised again, because that would be a tragedy,' he said.

Stephen Robinson

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