Girding up to fight a potential flu pandemic that could kill tens of millions of people worldwide, the United Nations health agency today appealed to wealthy countries to help it build up a stockpile of antiviral medicine that it could rush to regions in need, especially to poorer nations, in view of current bird flu outbreaks.
“Right now, many wealthy countries are creating their own stockpiles of antivirals. However, poor countries simply cannot afford to do this,” UN World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Lee Jong-wook said in welcoming a donation to its rapid-response stockpile of 3 million treatment courses of the antiviral oseltamivir from the Roche company.
“If a flu pandemic were to emerge in a poor country for example, these drugs could be flown quickly to the centre of a potential pandemic. We urge other countries to help us build up the international stockpile,” he told a news conference in Geneva.
“Preparing the world for a pandemic strain of influenza is a WHO priority. It must also be a priority for every country in the world. Coordinated and effective action can reduce the death, suffering and social disruption a pandemic would otherwise cause.”
Ever since the first human case of bird flu, linked to widespread poultry outbreaks in Viet Nam and Thailand, was reported in January last year, WHO has warned that the virus, H5N1, could evolve into a global influenza pandemic if it changes into a form which could transmit easily between people. The so-called Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1920, unrelated to the present virus, is estimated to have killed between 20 million and 40 million people worldwide.
Just last week WHO voiced concern over H5N1’s expanding geographical range to Russia and Kazakhstan, although there have been no human cases reported there. The longer H5N1 continues to circulate, the greater the possibility that people will be infected with it, and therefore the greater the risk that the virus will adapt to people and trigger a pandemic, the agency said today.
“The timing and severity of a flu pandemic is uncertain, but experts predict a pandemic will occur,” it added in a news release. “Therefore WHO continues to urge countries to develop preparedness plans. Planning must include international cooperation between wealthy and poor countries to reduce the opportunity for national and international spread, and to reduce the death, illness and social disruption.”
Should a pandemic strain emerge, “slowing its spread will be vital as this could buy valuable time to produce vaccines against the virus and introduce other emergency measures,” it added. “Antivirals, used intensively in an area where a pandemic is emerging, combined with other measures such as quarantine and isolation, could help to delay spread.”
In the agreement signed today, Roche has committed to providing 3 million treatment courses which would be dispatched to people in greatest need at the site of an emerging pandemic.
Oseltamivir could help to reduce illness and death, and when combined with other measures, could potentially contain an emerging pandemic virus or slow its national and international spread. If it reaches the site of an outbreak quickly, an antiviral stockpile could especially help people in poorer countries.
Overall, there have been 112 reported human infections, 57 of them fatal, all in South-East Asia. Nearly 140 million domestic birds have died or been culled in an effort to curb the spread of the disease.