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
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
"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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