We live in a climate where the threat of bio-terrorism is significant enough to warrant serious preparation for a biological attack.

This, together with the possibility of global outbreaks of infectious disease, such as avian influenza or SARS, increases the need to prepare for a pandemic.

In the last six months alone, there have been numerous cases of potentially fatal disease outbreaks, which have affected the UK's economy and put tremendous pressure on primary care services.

Last winter, the Health Protection Agency estimated that the total number of people affected by the highly contagious norovirus exceeded 2.8 million. Many hospitals struggled to cope and had no alternative but to close wards to new patients because of the serious shortage of beds.

In recent weeks, there have been increasing reports of antibiotic-resistant Acinetobacter infections, which are becoming a major problem for many hospitals. Experts in hospital-acquired infections have warned that effective treatments could soon run out, as modern antibiotics are having little impact and older forms are becoming resistant.

So, with the increasing threat of disease outbreaks, are we really doing enough to prepare for possible pandemics and their implications for traditional healthcare services?

Pandemic or pandemonium

In a pandemic, traditional health services will have to adapt to a rapidly changing situation to cope with high demand for advice and treatment.

Non-clinically trained call operators may need to be brought in to assess the condition of callers, provide information and tell people where to go for treatment, as healthcare professionals will be working under increased pressure and will be at risk of illness themselves.

Through services such as NHS Direct, the public is becoming increasingly familiar and comfortable with telephone-based access to healthcare and advice. During the outbreak of norovirus over the winter months, NHS Direct reported an increased number of calls from people complaining of diarrhoea and vomiting symptoms.

Technology's role

It may be possible to contain the spread of disease through effective preparation. By providing the public with the information they need in a timely manner, collecting and analysing information, and deploying the right resources at the right times, outbreaks, benign or otherwise, can be contained and the level of risk to the population minimised.

While bio-surveillance technologies cannot provide clinical management solutions for tackling pandemic outbreaks, they can provide a tool for quickly and effectively analysing the spread of symptoms and a means of communicating health advice to those affected.

Being better prepared to monitor, manage and prevent outbreaks from developing into pandemics will help the press, service operators and the public be more confident that everything that can be done is being done.