BRUSSELS, Belgium – The European Union warned on Monday that an influenza pandemic (search) was waiting to happen and said nations were still struggling to prepare for it.
"It is now a certainty that at some point in the future we will have a pandemic and therefore we need to prepare as much as possible," said EU Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou (search) after a meeting of the bloc's 25 health ministers.
Influenza is highly contagious and has killed millions over the past century. It has traditionally moved in cycles and some scientists say a major outbreak is already overdue.
The 1918-1919 Spanish Flu (search) outbreak killed up to 40 million people around the world, much more than the Great War that preceded it. There also were major outbreaks in 1957-58 and 1968-1969 that killed more than a million each. The most virulent strains hit about every 30 years.
"Some say it is overdue, some say the near future. What is important is that it is coming and we have to prepare for it," Kyprianou said.
EU health ministers are scrambling to improve their reaction speed to any outbreak and seek to coordinate policies which often are still national responsibilities.
Scientists have already called for better vaccination programs and improvements in the early warning and rapid-response systems.
The EU has already stepped up efforts after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks when bioterrorist attacks appeared as a palpable possibility.
If a pandemic breaks out, EU nations will face two main challenges, said Dutch Health Minister Hans Hoogervorst, who chaired the meeting. The virus will most likely be totally new and it will likely take about a year to have an efficient antidote on the market ready for use.
In the meantime, anti-viral medicine will have to be distributed and Hoogervorst said the production in large enough quantities in short enough time would be a huge problem.
Even during an average year, some 50,000 people in Europe die of the flu, more than road deaths. Hardest hit are the elderly, babies and young children.