Medical care systems will be overwhelmed if a human H5N1 pandemic should occur. Several national disaster plans, including that of Belgium, focus on maximal treatment at home with senior medical students supporting frontline care. To evaluate the knowledge and preparedness of Belgian senior medical students, an e-mail survey of senior medical students (last two years of education) attending Flemish universities was conducted.
A total of 243 students (30%) replied. Only 21.8% of them were aware of the possibility of being involved in this planning. A total of 77.4% estimated H5N1 to be a possible threat to national health. Seventy percent of respon-dents reacted positively towards the idea of being involved in implementing primary care, and only 9.5% were absolutely opposed to the idea. A total of 82.3% would care for pandemic patients if necessary, but only 41.2% would do so if these patients were children. Only 18.9% estimated themselves to be suf-ficiently educated regarding H5N1. Ninety-one percent were convinced that care for H5N1-influenza patients should be incorporated into their regular curriculum. Several antiviral products were reported by the students to be effi-cient for treating H5N1, but only 34.6% correctly chose oseltamavir and/or zanamavir and 35.4% replied “I don't know”. A total of 95.5% correctly answered that the regular influenza vaccination doesn't protect against H5N1. The risk for human-to-human transmission was rated to be small by 50.6% (none 21%, high 27.6%). The human infection risk was rated to be small by 74.1% (none 1.6%, high 23%).
There is a high level of willingness to participate among senior medical students. However, in the case of pediatric patients they're more reserved. It would be useful to incorporate a focused session on preparedness in the regular teaching program. A legal base for their actions should also be provided. Ethical guidelines on rights and duties in case of a pandemic should be prepared by an international, multidisciplinary group of experts.