HEALTH officials now fear as many as 1.3 million people here could be struck down by a flu pandemic.
But the Government has no power to declare a state of emergency and order drastic public health measures.
Compulsory vaccination, quarantine, travel prohibitions and involuntary hospital admission require an immediate referendum to amend the constitution, a conference of international experts heard. The Constitution only provides for the declaration of a state of emergency in situations of war or armed rebellion. Article 28 does not extend to a pandemic, where the State might need to apply emergency powers to protect human life and ward off civil unrest and a breakdown in public order.
"In the context of measures necessitated by a pandemic a number of human rights challenges arise," Donncha O'Connell, Dean of the Faculty of Law, NUI Galway, told a meeting of the Irish Council for Bioethics. Dr Darina O'Flanagan, Head of the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, said the original 25pc projection of those likely to be affected had been revised.
However, she told the conference that Ireland was now among countries with the highest stocks of anti-viral drugs as part of contingency plans. .
The stocks were almost complete with enough of the anti-viral drug Tamiflu to cover 25pc of the population.
A further stock of another anti-viral drug Relenza will soon be fully complete to cover another 18pc.
Anti-viral drugs can treat sick patients and offer post-exposure prophylaxis but the ethics of wealthier countries buying up so much stocks, while poorer nations could only afford smaller purchases, was being questioned.
The conference looked at the ethical dilemmas that would be faced. A 'suite of plans' which have been finalised by the Health Service Executive as well as the expert committee which has been co-ordinating the preparations are to be finalised shortly.
Dr Ross Upshur , of the University of Toronto, said many lessons are to be learned about how to deal with such as crisis after Toronto became the centre of the SARS outbreak some years ago.
One of the issues was the risk faced by healthcare workers. Some staff would face a disproportionate risk in the event of a pandemic.
People did show up for work during the SARS crisis and and patients were cared for. But after the outbreak a significant number looked at alternative careers.
Last night the Department of Health, which is finalising the State's pandemic plan, said that all legal issues on pandemic planning are being considered, but did not confirm if it would recommend a referendum to the cabinet.
Ireland has no 24-hour system to protect against outbreaks of disease or a biological terror attack, including anthrax.
Public health doctors are engaged in a dispute with the Government over pay and status, leaving the country exposed outside of office hours and at weekends.