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Retired GPs could be called on to help cope with flu pandemic

GPs could be brought out of retirement to help cope with an influenza pandemic amid concerns that a new, highly pathogenic strain of Hong Kong flu is threatening to strike the UK.

Flu experts warned that the UK was not prepared for a pandemic, which could kill up to a quarter of a million people should there be an outbreak this flu season.

Researchers from the Public Health Laboratory Service are fast-tracking trials of a vaccine against the newly identified strain, which is a mutated form of the Hong Kong flu virus that killed several people in China in 1997.

The new strain, influenza A H9N2, has widespread prevalence in livestock and has been reported in a handful of cases in humans, which the researchers said raised fears of a pandemic threat.

Professor John Oxford, professor of virology at Queen Mary University London and a senior Government adviser on influenza, said the UK was not prepared for a pandemic.

'We haven't had a flu pandemic since 1968. The risk of a pandemic coming within the next five years is greater than the risk of a bioterrorist attack,' he said.

'PHLS and Department of Health contingency plans are constantly being updated. They detail priority groups for vaccines and antiviral drug treatment. GPs would be at the frontline and I believe retired GPs would be asked to help deliver this,' he added.

Dr Maria Zambon, head of the PHLS respiratory virus unit in London who led the study into the new flu vaccine, said a pandemic could strike 'at any time'.

Results of the study, presented at the European Scientific Working Group's annual conference on influenza in Malta last month, showed the vaccine was well tolerated and stimulated dose-related rises in antibodies when tested on 60 healthy adults.

Dr Zambon added: 'The most important role for GPs is the delivery of primary care, which might include antibiotic or antiviral prescribing as well as vaccine delivery.'

Dr George Kassianos, RCGP immunisation spokesman and a GP in Bracknell, Berkshire, said: 'In the case of a pandemic, GPs will play a crucial role in co-ordinating vaccination programmes, treating influenza and its complications, as well as keeping the NHS going.'

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