By Nick TriggleHealth reporter, BBC NewsExperts are adamant, the world has never been better prepared for a flu pandemic.History tells us that there are global epidemics every 30 to 50 years. And with the last one happening in the late 1960s, governments across the world have been on alert for the past decade. That moment could now be here with the World Health Organization describing the outbreak of swine flu as a major concern. Governments across the world have been revising and making new plans since the re-emergence of bird flu six years ago in south east Asia. Nearly 150 countries are now known to have drawn up contingency plans covering everything from the response of health services to travel restrictions and international co-operation. In 2007, the International Health Regulations came into place compelling all 194 member states to respond to a "public health emergency of international concern". SurveillanceThey are required to report results of surveillance activity to the WHO and open lines of communication with other governments. This is deemed essential in providing good up-to-date information on which decisions can be based to control the spread of disease. Delay in making the right decisions or even acting too hastily could be costly, WHO believes. As well as protecting health, the regulations have been drawn up to minimise the impact on global trade and movement. A worldwide flu pandemic, for example, could cost economies as much as $3 trillion. It means the WHO feels confident enough to declare that the international community is better prepared than ever. Keiji Fukuda, who is in charge of health security at WHO, said governments have responded responsibly by stockpiling drugs. He said: "I think for the immediate period I would say that we are much better off than we've been in the past." "Because of global travel, a pandemic will get a foothold everywhere so what is important is that the plans that have been drawn up are followed"Professor Stephen Field, of the Royal College of GPsThe WHO has praised the UK - along with France - for being the best prepared. More than 30m courses of anti-viral drugs have been bought - enough to treat half the population. The drug is not a vaccine, but can lessen the symptoms and minimise spread of the virus. The UK has also signed a deal with manufacturers to be one of the first in line for a vaccine - this can only be developed once scientists know what strain is behind a pandemic. The influenza contingency plan was published in 2005 and includes a graduated series of public health measure to control a pandemic. The NHS and other parts of public sector have carried out exercises to test their preparedness, while the government has powers to impose travel restrictions and screening at ports and airports if necessary. DoubtsProfessor Stephen Field, president of the Royal College of GPs, said: "The UK has done a really good job. But I would say lots of western governments have invested in this in recent years so there are good plans in place. "The fears over bird flu have really driven this. "Because of global travel, a pandemic will get a foothold everywhere so what is important is that the plans that have been drawn up are followed." FLU PANDEMICS1918: The Spanish flu pandemic remains the most devastating outbreak of modern times - infecting up to 40% of the world's population and killing more than 50m people, with young adults particularly badly affected1957: Asian flu killed two million people. Caused by a human form of the virus, H2N2, combining with a mutated strain found in wild ducks. The elderly were particularly vulnerable1968: An outbreak first detected in Hong Kong, and caused by a strain known as H3N2, killed up to one million people globally, with those over 65 most likely to dieBut despite the bullishness of many experts, there are still doubts this will happen. At the end of last year, the United Nations produced a report warning while many countries had plans in place, too many had not been adequately tested. Again the UK was congratulated on its response, but just half of those with plans had tested them in the previous 12 months. Furthermore, just over a third had incorporated lessons from those exercises. The UN report warned the "continuing lack of preparedness remained a cause for concern". It added: "It is not enough to have a written plan. You also have to check it, test it and make sure it works and then revise it on the basis of assimilation." Poor surveillance and lab testing resources were also reported, particularly in Africa. A global fund has been set up with £3bn donated so far to help developing countries improve their systems, but that is still more than £1bn short of what is thought to be needed. What seems certain is that for all the positive noises about preparedness, it will only be when a pandemic actually emerges will we know whether the groundwork has been done right.This article is from the BBC News website. © British Broadcasting Corporation, The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.


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