I propose to take Questions Nos. 217 and 239 together.
Avian influenza —"bird flu"— is an infectious disease of birds caused by the type A strains of the influenza virus. The Department of Agriculture and Food is responsible for controlling avian influenza in birds and mammals other than humans. That Department has a contingency plan for avian influenza and all questions relating to this should be referred to my colleague, the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Coughlan.
According to the World Health Organisation, the spread of the A/H5N1 virus to poultry in new areas is of concern as it increases opportunities for further human cases to occur. However, all evidence to date indicates that the H5N1 virus does not spread easily from birds to infect humans. The WHO level of pandemic alert remains unchanged at phase 3 — a virus new to humans is causing infections but does not spread easily from one person to another.
My Department and the Health Service Executive are closely monitoring avian influenza developments with particular reference to the public health implications. The overall aims of influenza pandemic planning are to reduce mortality and morbidity and minimise the resulting disruption to society. However, the consequences of a global pandemic are still likely to be serious. Pandemic planning can only mitigate the effects and my Department and the Health Service Executive are working closely together on pandemic planning.
A generic public health emergency plan for the health system was prepared in 2004. This included disease specific operational response plans in relation to SARS, pandemic influenza and smallpox. These plans identify key actions which must be undertaken before and during a major public health threat. The responses are structured within the following functional areas: surveillance, health services, public health measures, vaccines-antivirals, etc., communications, laboratories and materials management. The pandemic influenza plan is being updated to reflect the most up-to-date advice of the influenza pandemic expert group and the World Health Organisation. Social distancing measures will be considered in the context of public health measures generally.
The public health emergency plan provides for a command and control structure with strategic and operational components. My Department has responsibility for the strategic issues while the Health Service Executive continues to have responsibility for operational issues. The Secretary General of my Department chairs the team which will co-ordinate the response at national level and the chief medical officer of my Department will act as head of the team in the absence of the Secretary General for whatever reason. The national team had its first official meeting in July 2005.
The public health emergency plan may be activated following consideration of advice from the chief medical officer or relevant personnel in the Health Service Executive or from an outside agency such as the European Union or World Health Organisation. The Health Service Executive held regional influenza pandemic exercises earlier this year to test its regional plans. The results of these exercises will be taken into account in updating the national plan. The European Commission is organising a command post pandemic influenza exercise to test communications, exchanges of information and interaction between the competent authorities at EU level and the co-ordination and interoperability of national plans. Ireland is participating in this exercise, which is being funded by the Commission. The dates are not being publicly announced to make the exercise as realistic as possible.
Influenza pandemics are caused when a new flu virus emerges to which people have no immunity. As it is new, a vaccine can only be manufactured once the new strain emerges. It should be noted that it will take at least four to six months from the time a pandemic flu strain emerges to develop and manufacture a vaccine. A vaccine is in development which could offer some protection against an H5N1 influenza strain. International experts consider that a stockpile of H5N1 vaccine could be used as a first line of defence for frontline health and emergency staff while a vaccine against the exact pandemic influenza strain is manufactured.
It was decided in August on foot of expert advice that a limited amount of H5N1 vaccine should be purchased. It is intended to purchase 400,000 doses, which is sufficient for 200,000 people. My Department is actively pursuing this matter. H5N1 vaccines will not be available anywhere before March-April 2006.
Antivirals can shorten the duration of the disease and alleviate symptoms. We have an emergency supply of more than 45,000 treatment packs of antivirals — Tamiflu®— and 10,000 units of paediatric suspension. We are stockpiling a further 1 million treatment packs of Tamiflu®. This quantity is sufficient to treat 25% of the population. Of these, 600,000 packs will be delivered by the end of this year while the remaining 400,000 packs will be delivered next year. Plans for the storage and distribution of antivirals are being developed as part of the planning process. The size of the stockpile is in line with international trends.