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09 September 2005

World Community Steps Up Preparedness for Bird Flu Pandemic

U.N. health agency says avian influenze threat demands urgent preparations

By Charlene Porter
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington – The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued a plan to guide its 192 member states on how they should prepare for the possibility of a global avian influenza pandemic.

Watching and waiting for human outbreaks of the disease, and knowing how to prevent their spread, is considered the best strategy for heading off a global pandemic.

Recommended actions were put forth by WHO this week in a report titled Responding to the Avian Infuenza Pandemic Threat, which guides member states on how to reduce opportunities for human infection and strengthen their early warning systems.

Speaking to Asian health ministers at a meeting in Sri Lanka September 5, WHO General Director Lee Jong-wook likened the prospect of such a pandemic as a disaster on the scale of Hurricane Katrina in the United States or the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004.

“We don’t know when it will strike, or how hard it will hit,” Lee said. “But we have the chance to put our action plan into place to save thousands, maybe millions, of lives.”

The ongoing outbreak of a virulent strain of bird flu in Asia could form the seed for a global pandemic, health officials warn. This strain of avian influenza has been ravaging poultry flocks in Southeast Asia since December 2003, causing the deaths of an estimated 150 million birds.  (See related article.)

In 112 verified cases, the virus has infected humans too, causing 57 deaths. In virtually all of these cases, people have become sick through direct contact with poultry. The virus could mutate, however, and develop into a form more easily transmitted from person to person. If that happens, health officials warn that serious disease could pass quickly and furiously with little human immunity to block the spread of the pathogen.

WHO’s report lists actions to contain or delay spread of the disease at the source if a pandemic virus emerges. If the disease breaks out and begins to spread internationally, the plan suggests ways to reduce sickness, death and social disruption.

Experts say history itself is another factor contributing to the prospect of a wide-scale deadly pandemic such as that in 1918, which killed an estimated 20 million people or more. Viruses change and reorganize constantly, but scientists believe the ones most deadly to humans emerge in a cyclical pattern. Other pandemics occurred in 1957, 1968 and 1977; now the world is overdue, according to many experts.

Unlike pandemics of the past, however, the world now has advance warning and the WHO report finds “an unprecedented opportunity for international intervention aimed at delaying the emergence of a pandemic virus or forestalling its international spread.”

The full text of Responding to the Avian Infuenza Pandemic Threat (PDF, 22 pages) is available on WHO’s Web site.

For additional information of the disease and efforts to prevent its spread, see Bird Flu.

A related article on a simulation model published in the journal Nature finds that pandemic could be avoided through strong surveillance and rapid response.  A team of British, U.S., Chinese and Thai researchers finds that if health officials begin disease containment when the flu has spread to no more than 40 cases, and treat all persons in contact with those initially infected, an outbreak can be restricted to about 150 deaths and millions of deaths can be avoided.

Also, "The Next Influenza Pandemic: Lessons from Hong Kong, 1997" is available on The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Web site, along with additional information on containment of epidemics.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)