Though no cases of avian flu or its H5N1 virus have been reported yet in birds or humans anywhere in the Americas, United Nations health agencies and other partners today launched a new preparedness campaign for the disease, which they say could reach the hemisphere at any time and possibly mutate into a human pandemic.
“We need to be prepared for H5N1 to enter the Western Hemisphere, whether it is through wild birds or commerce or a combination of the two. We should take this interval to get prepared,” said David Nabarro, senior UN system coordinator for avian and human influenza, in a message taped for a two-day meeting of health experts at the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) headquarters in Washington.
The new Inter-Agency Communication Framework for Avian and Human Influenza in the Americas sets forth a common approach for communicating with the media, government officials, the private sector and the general public, as part of ongoing efforts to prevent and prepare for avian and pandemic flu.
To date, H5N1 has been detected in birds in some 45 countries in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East, spreading to 30 of those countries in just the past six months. The disease has prompted the death or culling of more than 200 million birds and has cost $10 billion in economic losses in Asia alone. In 10 countries, the virus has infected humans, causing 231 cases and 133 deaths as of 20 July.
At the very least, the arrival of H5N1 in birds in Latin America and the Caribbean would represent a serious threat to the poultry industry. In addition, the virus could mutate into a strain that is easily transmissible between humans.
Polling in Latin America and the Caribbean shows low public awareness of the risks of avian flu, as well as widespread scepticism about the likelihood of H5N1 mutating into a human virus that could spark a pandemic. Few people in the region see the problems as requiring priority attention.
Among the goals of the communications campaign, the health experts plan to disseminate information on the spread of avian flu and actions to counter it, to build trust with public health officials and animal health officials, and to work with governments to bolster their own communications strategies.