GENEVA, Switzerland, May 17, 2005 (ENS):
Avian influenza is the most serious known health threat
the world is facing, World Health Organization Director-General
Lee Jong-wook told opening of the 58th World Health
Assembly on Monday. Comparing the possibility to the
Spanish flu pandemic in 1918, which killed between 20
and 50 million people, Lee said, "The timing cannot
be predicted, but rapid international spread is certain
once the pandemic virus appears. This is a grave danger
for all people in all countries."
"By good fortune we have had time - and still
have time - to prepare for the next global pandemic,
because the conditions for it have appeared before the
outbreak itself," said Lee. We must do everything
in our power to maximize that preparedness. When this
event occurs, our response has got to be immediate,
comprehensive and effective."
After the opening plenary U.S. Secretary of Health
and Human Services Mike Leavitt convened a ministerial
meeting on avian influenza with the health ministers
and heads of delegation from both affected countries
and donor countries.
"Many of us are particularly worried about H5N1
avian influenza virus, and we’re right to worry,"
Leavitt told the meeting. "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."
Leavitt said he is briefed daily on the status of
bird flu and that President George W. Bush "understands
the gravity of our situation."
"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," Leavitt said.
"To maximize our preparation, we need to cooperate
and communicate, regularly and without surprises,"
the U.S. health official said. "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."
Leavitt explained that the U.S. National Institutes
of Health have this year 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," he said.
The U.S. delegation hosts a technical meeting on avian
flu today co-chaired by the Kingdom of Thailand and
the WHO Secretariat. WHO will also have a technical
briefing on avian influenza on Wednesday.
"Pandemic flu is an urgent health challenge, and
preparedness is the best defense," Leavitt said.
"Transparency, strong surveillance, and communication
are essential components of our response to this threat."
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