The advice is based on a module that is freely available on BMJ Learning (www.bmjlearning.com) to help keep health professionals up to date with key issues.
It is important that general practitioners take the recent threat of a flu pandemic seriously, writes Dr Douglas Fleming, a general practitioner in Birmingham. If a pandemic does occur in the United Kingdom, general practice is likely to carry the major burden, and it is unrealistic to think that it will be contained in routine office hours.
Practice staff need to consider how to advise patients, target those at risk, cope with increased demand, and continue giving routine care, he says. He advises practices to train staff in triage methods and improve their capacity to manage illness by telephone.
He also warns practices not to be swayed by media hype, but to obtain and provide accurate information to a fearful and anxious population.
He points out that an appropriate vaccine cannot be developed until the pandemic virus is clearly identified and it will be some months before there are sufficient supplies for widespread use. Furthermore, it is not clear how useful antiviral drugs would be to treat a completely new virus, or how easy it would be to distribute them during the high-pressure conditions of a pandemic.
Supply shortages also bring ethical dilemmas between countries with manufacturing capacity and those without, and with respect to people in countries with inadequate resources to meet the cost of vaccines and drugs.
Should a pandemic emerge within 12 months, the availability of antiviral drugs will be limited, and people at high risk will need to be given priority. Healthcare workers and people operating essential services might be the most important groups to protect, he concludes.