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16 May 2005

U.S. Health Secretary Calls Bird Flu Outbreak Urgent Challenge

Leavitt focuses on potential pandemic at meeting of world health leaders

The Asian bird flu outbreak and the possibility that it could lead to a global flu pandemic among humans are issues of top concern in Geneva, where health leaders from almost 200 nations are gathered for the World Health Assembly.

“Pandemic flu is an urgent health challenge, and preparedness is the best defense,” said U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt May 16. “Transparency, strong surveillance and communication are essential components of our response to this threat.”

Leavitt said the United States has heightened its preparedness for a flu pandemic in recent years with increased spending on development of new vaccines and the creation of stockpiles of drugs and vaccines.

Leavitt delivered remarks at a ministerial meeting focused specifically on bird flu on the sidelines of the assembly, the annual gathering of member nations of the World Health Organization. He brought representatives from the affected nations and donor countries together to discuss their ongoing efforts to contain an epidemic, which has killed hundreds of millions of birds.

About 90 humans have been infected with the H5N1 virus in Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand; 52 of them have died. Health officials fear that a widespread outbreak in humans could set in motion a global flu pandemic.

Further information on bird flu and the international health campaign to prevent it is available on World Health Organization’s Web site.  Further information is also available on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site and at http://usinfo.state.gov/gi/global_issues/bird_flu.html.

Following is the text of Leavitt’s remarks:

(begin text)

Note: At the World Health Assembly in Geneva, the Honorable Mike Leavitt, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, convened a ministerial meeting on Avian Influenza.  He invited the Health Ministers and Heads of Delegation from both affected countries and donor countries.  His opening remarks follow.

Opening remarks of the Honorable Mike Leavitt,
U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services
MINISTERIAL MEETING ON AVIAN INLFUENZA
MAY 16, 2005
Geneva

Fellow Ministers and Heads of Delegations, invited guests, thank you for coming. 

My goal in calling you together is to foster some frank dialogue on the current situation regarding highly pathogenic avian influenza.  I want to discuss what we in the United States and other partner countries can do to assist people in affected countries to combat that virus in a sustainable way, and to understand how, by working together, we can be better prepared for an influenza pandemic. 

I am acutely aware of the disaster that a pandemic could cause.  Many of us are particularly worried about H5N1 avian influenza virus, and we’re right to worry.  It has infected at least 89 human beings and killed more than half.  There is a chance that this virus could cause the next pandemic.  

Pandemic flu is an urgent health challenge, and preparedness is the best defense.  Transparency, strong surveillance, and communication are essential components of our response to this threat. 

I’ve made preparedness one of my top priorities, and I get briefed daily.  President Bush also understands the gravity of our situation.  The United States Government has made significant progress on pandemic influenza since he took office.  We have increased spending on influenza tenfold over the past five years.  We have added flu vaccine and flu drugs to our national stockpile and made influenza part of regular public health discussions. 

As part of our commitment, I am pleased to report that our National Institutes of Health have recently initiated clinical trials of a vaccine specifically designed against the H5N1 strain that is circulating in Asia.  We have also gone ahead and produced two million doses of this vaccine in bulk. 

Since we do not know where or when a pandemic may originate, we have strengthened and expanded our surveillance network across the globe, but especially in East and Southeast Asia, where HHS field experts are working with local researchers, clinicians, and governments.  We are also in frequent contact with the W-H-O Secretariat and its regional offices in Manila and New Delhi. 

We share the increasing concern about human cases of avian influenza.  We reiterate our support to the affected countries in Southeast Asia.  We want to work with the W-H-O, the affected countries, and our partner countries around the room.  Your leadership is essential, and your contributions have been and remain significant. 

If a flu pandemic starts, public health officials need to be able to react right away across borders—regardless of the relationships among governments—to bring treatment to the victims and protect others from infection.

To maximize our preparation, we need to cooperate and communicate, regularly and without surprises. We need to identify the short- and longer-term barriers to sustainable action on avian influenza.  Developed countries need to know where affected countries need the most assistance to address the control and treatment of this virus.  We want to work with you.

There are a few concrete steps we can take together now to improve preparedness for an influenza pandemic.  First, I urge you all to have your experts attend the technical meeting tomorrow, hosted by my Government and co-chaired with us by the Kingdom of Thailand and the W-H-O Secretariat.  The W-H-O will also have a technical briefing on Influenza on Wednesday afternoon.  I urge you to support the W-H-A resolution on pandemic influenza preparedness and response that we and a number of other countries introduced at the Executive Board.  It provides a good blueprint for action.

The more we prepare now, the more lives we will save in the event of a pandemic

There is a time in the life of every problem when it is big enough to see and small enough to solve.  For flu preparedness, that time is now.

(end text)