Pandemic influenza and health care workers

Pandemic influenza is one of the most urgent global public health threats. World Health Organization (WHO) models anticipate that pandemic influenza will start out as an avian flu virus that mutates into a form transmissible between human beings.

Once established among people in this form anywhere in the world, its spread to the rest of the globe will be speedy, even if current monitoring arrangements provide some early warning. The WHO writes that, ‘today a pandemic is likely to result in 2 to 7.4 million deaths globally. In high income countries alone, accounting for 15% of the worlds population, models project a demand for 134–233 million outpatient visits and 1.5–5.2 million hospital admissions. However, the impact of the next pandemic is likely to be the greatest in low income countries because of different population characteristics and the already strained health care resources’.

The Centre is currently developing a range of research projects on ethical issues raised by this form of international biological emergency. The first to be funded, under the Research for Patient Benefit Programme of the National Institute for Health Research, UK Department of Health, looks at health care workers' attitudes to working during pandemic influenza.  This project combines an empirical study of UK health care workers’ current attitudes to working during a pandemic and analysis of the government recommendations about how the public and private sectors, as well as the ordinary citizen, should behave during an outbreak. The UK government has an established programme of contingency planning based on assumptions concerning the national and international spread of the disease, the capacity of the UK public and private sectors to adapt to the anticipated levels of illness (and deaths), and a clearly defined set of ethical principles, including principles of justice and personal and social responsibility.

The project is a collaboration between the Centre, Heart of Birmingham (Teaching) PCT and U of B Schools of Medicine and Geography. It is led by Dr Heather Draper, who has been seconded to the Centre since November 2006 from the Department of Primary Care and General Practice. Other co-applicants include Prof. Tom Sorell, the Director of the Centre, Prof. Sue Wilson, Dr Sheila Greenfield, Prof Jayne Parry (U of B Medical School), and Prof. Judith Petts (U of B School of Geography). Dr Jon Ives is the Research Fellow.

The overall value of the project, which will be carried out over 14 months, is £154,000.

The results of this project will be made directly available to emergency planners in the UK.