After months of testing, the United National public health agency today opened an emergency response centre to head off illnesses that verge on becoming pandemic - such as bird flu and SARS - anywhere in the world in 48 hours.
"In an epidemic crisis particularly, rapid, coordinated communication between WHO Member States and headquarters here and the region is vital," the World Health Organization's Dr. Michael J. Ryan told a news conference in Geneva to launch the facility.
"In SARS, that sort of transparent, regular communication was vital in the fight against that disease. Beyond that, the need to be able to bring together scientists from all over the world, rapidly, in a virtual network, either through audio-visual or computer links, provides us with an ability to get the best minds in the world working on a public health problem immediately."
The $5 million room, which opened in August for testing, could quickly be redesigned and reshaped for different emergency uses. It has been equipped with dial-up, audio-visual conferencing in three areas, which can operate independently of cuts in electricity, breakdown in telephone service, or other communication problems at WHO, he said.
"We don't need to get people together physically," Dr. Ryan said. "We can leave lab people working in their labs on the diagnostics. We can leave clinicians working on the frontlines in the hospitals, but we can bring them together virtually to exchange information rapidly during a crisis."
For the last three days experts had been working on the Global Influenza Programme, but the centre's 35 staff could work against the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, Ebola, measles or meningitis by mounting "a targeted pubic health response anywhere in the world in 24 to 48 hours," whenever countries requested help, he said.
As an example, he showed how the facility could assess the number of vaccine doses against meningitis needed in any of 14 affected West African countries, so as not to ship out the wrong amounts.