How To Stop The Flu Spreading

The Naked Scientists spoke to Professor Pat Troop, Chief executive of the Health Protection Agency
16 October 2005

Interview with 

Professor Pat Troop, Chief executive of the Health Protection Agency


Chris - So what actually is the Health Protection Agency?

Pat - We're a specialist public health organisation and our job is to help protect people against infections like flu, meningitis or food poisoning. We try to find out when it happens and mount a response with doctors and nurses, who try to stop it spreading and hopefully put and end to it. We do other things with chemical spills and other things too, but for tonight I think the infections part is most important.

Catherine - So how have you responded to this potential problem with avian flu?

Pat - The first thing we need to know is where is it and where's it got to? We work with people all over the world to find out where it is at anyone time and work out whether it is likely to affect us. We also look to see whether it's changing. Then we've got all sorts of systems I place to try and pick it up the moment it arrives. You may know something called NHS Direct where people can phone up and ask for help from nurses who are on the other end of the phone. We analyse the information that goes there every day and pick up how many people are phoning in with coughs or colds every day.

Chris - But what about actually getting samples of the virus?

Pat - We can do that as well. We have samples of the virus at the moment and what we've done is work out how to test for it. In our laboratories, we've being doing tests on it so that if we have any samples, we can check to see if it's the same one and know if it's going to spread badly. So we know how many people are getting ill, and which viruses are there, so we can all swing into action.

Chris - You also just look for general flu anyway don't you?

Pat - Yes, we keep that going all the time. We keep all sorts of systems through the GPs, through the labs, through the people, so we know all the time what's going on and then tell doctors and nurses how to cope with it.

Catherine - How can you control for migratory birds and integrate that in to find out what's going on?

Pat - That's much more difficult. The vets do look for things, and monitor what's happening with large chicken flocks. But there's also a big survey on wild geese coming over at the moment and checking how many are infected and how many are getting ill with it. They're getting birdwatchers out there to keep an eye out too. There are lots of migrating birds on the east coast, and we're asking people to keep an eye out for any that might have the flu.

Chris - So if we detected a case tomorrow in the UK, what would get put into action?

Pat - We'd first of all check that it is the flu and that it's the right one. We would then find out who they'd also been in contact with to see who else might have the flu and we can try and contain it in a very small area. Once you've got an infection like this, the most important thing is to stop it spreading. You encourage people to stay at home if they have flu, put your hand over your mouth when you cough, wash your hands, and all the basic kinds of things you're told to do. We also have some antiviral drugs for people who are likely to be very ill with the disease. As you've already heard, we haven't yet got a vaccine for this, So all that hygiene stuff, keeping away from other people and taking some drugs is all we have at the moment.

Chris - Will you do things like closing large sporting events and stop lots of people congregating together?

Pat - It might happen. In the early stages we wouldn't do that, because we'd hope that we'd be picking up the early spread. But if it started to spread very widely, we might have to say don't congregate in large groups, as all you'll do is spread it further.

Catherine - At what point are people most infectious?

Pat - Well John is more of an expert on this than me, but I think you can be infectious as soon as you've been in contact can't you?

John - Yes, well within 24 hours anyway.

Pat - So you don't always feel ill before you start passing it on. This is part of the problem with flu, and one of the reasons it spreads so quickly.


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