The prolonged concern over the potential for a global influenza pandemic to cause perhaps many millions of fatalities is a chilling one. After the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) scares [1], attention has turned towards the possibility of an avian influenza virus hybridizing with a human influenza virus to create a highly virulent, as yet unknown, killer, on a scale unseen since the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918, which produced more fatalities than the Great War. In deciding how countries should react to this potential pandemic, individually and collectively, a reasonable and practical balance must be struck between the rights and obligations of individual citizens and protection of the wider community and, indeed, society as a whole. In this communication, ethical issues are discussed in the context of some of the scientific questions relating to a potential influenza pandemic. Among these issues are the rights and obligations of healthcare professionals, difficulties surrounding resource allocation, policies that have an impact on liberty and trade, when and how to introduce any vaccine or other form of mass treatment, global governance questions and the role of health policies in contemporary society. By considering these issues and questions in advance of an influenza, or indeed any other, pandemic commencing, countries can be better prepared to deal with the inevitably difficult decisions required during such events, rather than dusting down outdated previous plans, or making and implementing policy in an ad hoc manner with a resultant higher risk of adverse consequences.

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