Threat of bird flu pandemic dominates World Health Assembly

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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