Expert round: Dr. Guggemos, Dr. Graf, Prof. Kerscher

What if an epidemic strikes – Is Munich prepared?

The fourth dialogue forum in the series “The risks of living in Munich – Perceived and actual” at the Bavarian State Library on 9 November 2006

A more appropriate title for the fourth dialogue forum sponsored by the GSF - National Research Center for Environment and Health and the Munich Re Foundation might well have been “Thinking the unthinkable”. The discussion centred not on epidemics, diseases confined to a given geographical area, but on pandemics, which strike on a global scale. The main concern was how to prevent a repeat of what happened in 1918, when Spanish flu claimed millions of lives.

The risk of a pandemic is high

Summing up the current situation, Prof. Günther Kerscher of the Bavarian State Ministry of the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Protection commented, “It is not a question of whether the next pandemic strikes but when. This is something for which all countries must be prepared.”

In Bavaria, historical data have been used to calculate a most-likely scenario. On the international front, guidelines have been drawn up in the form of the “WHO global influenza preparedness plan”.

Could bird flu trigger a pandemic?

Dr. Petra Graf of Munich’s Department of Health and Environment explained the issues at stake. “Bird flu is confined to the animal world and, given its current molecular structure, the bird flu virus (H5N1) would not trigger a pandemic.” However, H5N1 was a prime pandemic virus candidate. There was always a risk that its genome would change so that it could infect human beings.

In August, the State of Bavaria had approved a strategy dealing with surveillance, vaccinations and the provision of antiviral drugs. Dr. Graf emphasised that “we can all do our bit to minimise the risk of being infected”, above all by adopting a few simple hygiene precautions. We should wash our hands frequently, avoid shaking hands with people and keep away from crowds.

Patient care

Dr. Wolfgang Guggemos (Senior Physician of the Department for Infectious Diseases and Tropical Medicine at the General Hospital Munich Schwabing) pointed out that “there are no patent recipes. But thanks to our extensive experience in the treatment of infectious diseases, we are well equipped to face the challenge.”

The first stage would involve the use of antiviral drugs. It would take at least three months to produce a vaccine. Second-generation vaccines were currently being developed and these would probably have a broader activity spectrum.

He made an appeal to his colleagues in the community: “We have to manage clinical resources in a responsible manner. People should be referred to hospitals only if they cannot be treated as outpatients.”

The role of the politicians and the media

The issue clearly struck a chord with the audience, and some of the remarks made by the experts caused controversy, particularly regarding the role of politicians and the media. Which conveniently brings us to the subject of the last in the series of dialogue forums, scheduled for 28 November 2006: Pollutant of the month syndrome and the self-styled experts – The role of politicians and media in the risk debate.