The mainland's introduction of a colour-coded emergency plan to prevent or deal with a flu pandemic is a welcome development. It is a small but important step up in preparations to cope with a potentially catastrophic global pandemic which the World Health Organisation says is inevitable. Some health authorities have warned that China is the most likely place for such an outbreak to begin. Beijing has been refreshingly frank about the risk of human-to-human transmission of a mutated bird-flu virus beginning on the mainland and growing into a pandemic, and about shortcomings in the country's preparedness to deal with it. The Ministry of Health notes that historically China has been the first area hit by a number of flu pandemics. But it adds that medical services and public health are 'relatively weak', the surveillance system 'not perfect' and the capability to produce vaccines and drugs 'backward'. Other measures under the emergency plan include setting up an anti-influenza leading work group, surveillance networks, laboratories and a flu and bird-flu database. As the World Health Organisation points out, the plan is focused on the health sector. This is understandable, but medical services cannot contain a pandemic without help from other sectors. That is why the plan needs to be broadened while there is still time. Hong Kong has reason to take particular interest in the mainland's preparations for a possible outbreak, given our city's close proximity to Guangdong and the painful experience of the Sars outbreak which originated across the border. Beijing's adoption of an emergency plan and frankness about being unprepared is reassuring. It suggests that the mainland's failure to reveal the full extent of the Sars outbreak during its early stages in 2003 will not be repeated. If so, a very valuable lesson will have been learned. Mainland Sars expert Zhong Nanshan rates the risk of bird flu in Guangdong as 'grave'. As Hong Kong learned from Sars, an effective local and global response to an unfolding flu pandemic will depend on prompt and transparent communication of a suspected outbreak. There are grounds for concern that the world is still not as prepared as it should be. Public health experts have found that while many countries have emergency plans to cope with major disasters or terrorist attacks, it is still difficult to convince governments to plan for containing disease outbreaks. Less than 50 governments around the world have submitted plans with the WHO for dealing with a pandemic. Most are wealthy western nations - not the Asian countries where the H5N1 avian flu virus has spread. It is on Asia that experts are focusing in trying to forecast the outbreak of a human pandemic. The mainland's emergency plan will, hopefully, serve as an example for others.