World must confront possible flu pandemic, UN health chief warns

28 April 2006

The head of the United Nations health agency today warned the world’s leading industrial countries that the international community must guard against any shortfalls in its campaign to confront a potential flu pandemic.

“We must act as a global community. We must help develop comprehensive national preparedness plans, strengthen surveillance systems, and build laboratory networks,” World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Lee Jong-wook told the health ministers of the so-called G8 countries in Moscow.

“In a sense, the threat of human pandemic influenza is a ‘stress test’ for the international community,” he said, noting that in just three months since February the potentially deadly H5N1 bird flu virus had spread to 34 more countries, in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, several of them in the world's most densely populated and deprived areas.

“Are we in good shape to face a potential global disaster? This question has to be asked again and again by every Member State and international organization. It is a disgrace if we fail to recognize that we are in bad shape, and fail to put things right,” he warned, voicing the hope that the upcoming Moscow G8 summit “will be a watershed for the global control of communicable diseases.”

Although there have been scores of millions of deaths among birds worldwide, there have so far only been 205 human cases, 113 of them fatal, since the current outbreak started in South East Asia in December, 2003, ascribed to contact with infected birds. But experts fear the virus could mutate, gaining the ability to pass from person to person and in a worst case scenario unleashing a deadly human pandemic.

“Today many organizations in the UN family play a vital role in global communicable disease control - directly or indirectly,” Dr. Lee said. “A nimble UN system which is robust, light, and therefore respected and credible, is key for the success of this global effort to control communicable diseases.

“I cannot emphasize enough the role of the G8 countries in making this happen,” he told the ministers from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, together with the European Union (EU), applauding the International Partnership on Avian and Pandemic Influenza as “a hugely important mechanism for concerted action.”

Dr. Lee also stressed the urgent need for sufficient education to make up for the huge shortfall in trained health workers, especially in developing countries, without whom poverty reduction and achievement of the UN Millennium Developemt Goals (MDGs) aimed at slashing a host of socio-economic ills by 2015, are “a pipe dream.”

He called on the G8 to sustain the polio immunization campaign and “protect the “$4 billion global investment in polio eradication for the future of our children and grandchildren” and stressed international commitment entailed in the effort to provide truly universal access to antiretroviral therapy for HIV/AIDS.

“It is vital that the G8 continues to honour the health commitments made in Gleneagles last year, in particular in the pursuit of universal access to HIV treatment, prevention and care, and eradication of polio,” he said, referring to the Scottish site of the 2005 summit.


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