The United Nations tourism agency today announced a multi-partner initiative to respond to bird flu and prepare for a possible human pandemic that could wreak havoc on an industry that was worth $622 billion in 2004, hosted more than 763 million travellers and is projected to expand at an annual rate of nearly 6 per cent.
The UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) said at the launch of the Tourism Emergency Response Network at a travel summit in Washington that there is currently no threat to the industry from the H5N1 virus and no case for restricting travel, but visitors to infected areas should avoid contact with live birds of any variety.
Agreeing that planning for the potential evolution of H5N1 to a human pandemic is a common concern, participants committed to work closely with UN System Influenza Coordinator David Nabarro, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) and other UN agencies, share real time information and ideas, and give clear, concise and geographically specific public messages.
The Network includes UNWTO, International Hotel & Restaurant Association, Pacific Asia Travel Association, International Federation of Tour Operators, United Federation of Travel Agents Associations, Airports Council International and the International Air Transport Association.
“Huge cross-border disasters have had an increasingly global impact and continually necessitate coordinated action by international bodies who are members of the UN family, with implementation by nation States,” UNWTO Secretary General Francisco Frangialli said.
“We have seen this in SARS, the tsunami and now with avian flu and preparations for a human pandemic,” he added, referring to the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which killed 774 people, infected more than 8,000 worldwide, the vast majority of them in China, and led to a slump in Asian tourism.
After the Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December, 2004 devastated many resorts in Thailand, Sri Lanka and other countries, UNWTO quickly appealed to the world’s media to help promote a resurgence of the industry, stressing that the return of tourists was the best way to help local communities recover from the tragedy.
There have been 192 human cases of bird flu since the current outbreak started in December, 2003, 109 of them fatal, ascribed to contact with infected birds. But experts fear H5N1 could mutate, gaining the ability to pass from person to person and in a worst case scenario unleashing a deadly human pandemic.
“The uncertainty of mutation of avian flu to a human pandemic means measured contingency preparation without overreaction, across the international community and with a focus at the national level,” said Geoffrey Lipman, Mr. Frangialli’s special advisor coordinating the Network.
“The tourism sector is an important stakeholder in the total global preparedness effort. The Network will help us play that part responsibly and more effectively.”
In a related development, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the inter-governmental World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) said today cats do not seem to play any discernable role in the transmission and spread of H5N1.
Epidemiological findings and experimental studies have shown that some mammal, particularly cats, may be susceptible to the virus, but based accumulated data the two organizations confirmed a WHO statement of 28 February that “there is no present evidence that domestic cats can play a role in the transmission cycle of H5N1 viruses.”
The species involved in the transmission and spread are essentially domestic and wild birds. But in view of the susceptibility of certain felines, they recommended that cats in infected and surveillance zones set up around bird flu outbreaks be kept indoors.