UN outlines rapid reaction teams to try to contain human bird flu pandemic

10 March 2006

Training exercises are to be conducted worldwide over the next few months to set up rapid reaction teams of experts to help put measures in place to slow and stop the potential spread of a lethal human bird flu epidemic, a senior United Nations health official said today.

“We will develop a roster of people who have received a great deal of training about what in fact are the containment procedures, what is influenza, what is the nature of the threat,” Acting Director of the World Health Organization (WHO) global influenza programme Keiji Fukuda told a news conference in Geneva.

These experts will consist of epidemiologists, laboratory specialists, plus experts in logistics, ethics and communications.

Dr. Fukuda was speaking after a three-day WHO meeting of dozens of experts and regional representatives aimed at building on a global strategy to help nations develop model plans on how to address any outbreak of pandemic flu through strengthening national surveillance, assessment and health response capacities.

He said recent scientific studies and reports gave hope that under certain conditions the early transmission of a new pandemic could be halted, although it was also clear that such moves could fail.

But there were good chances that efforts such as the revised rapid response and contain strategy could very well slow down the spread of a pandemic virus early on and increase the availability of vaccines, thus giving more time for national authorities to prepare.

For containment to be practical, the WHO expects countries to move and act quickly and begin antiviral treatment for infected people and to identify people who have been in contact with them, Dr. Fukuda said. The WHO also recommended that countries stockpile antiviral drugs.

In order to fill gaps where medicines were lacking, the pharmaceutical company Roche has donated 3 million doses of drugs which would be reserved for containment procedures. The company pledged an additional 2 million doses to WHO which will be received in September.

It is evident that the world will witness new and emerging diseases in the foreseeable future, and examining the needs arising from addressing bird flu will help experts assess and detect new and emerging diseases, WHO said.

At the moment the current H5N1 bird flu is rarely deadly to humans and globally only 175 people have fallen ill, 96 of them fatally, in the two-year-old outbreak, with almost all infections caused by very close contact with sick or dead birds.

But the great concern is that the virus could change into a type that spreads easily from person to person, hence the need for containment. The so-called Spanish flu pandemic that broke out in 1918 is estimated to have killed from 20 million to 40 million people worldwide by the time it had run its course two years later.

 

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