Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today cautioned against undue alarm while stressing the need for preparedness, as the United Nations health agency announced that the world is experiencing an influenza pandemic caused by the new A(H1N1) virus.
Earlier today, the head of the UN World Health Organization (WHO) said the agency has elevated its alert from phase 5 to phase 6, indicating a global pandemic outbreak.
“The world is now at the start of the 2009 influenza pandemic,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan told reporters in Geneva. As of today, nearly 30,000 confirmed cases have been reported in 74 countries.
Mr. Ban noted that the raising of the alert level is “a formal statement about the geographic spread of disease” and “not in itself a cause for alarm.”
Speaking at his monthly news conference in New York, the Secretary-General said that though infectious, this new virus has so far not been as severe as had been feared and death rates have been low.”
“But … we must be watchful. We do not know what picture will emerge in the coming months,” he stated. “The virus has hit mainly developed countries. That is likely to soon change – and it will have consequences.
He noted that poorer countries have less developed health systems, people tend to seek health care later, and there is often a higher level of other diseases in the general population. In addition, the Southern Hemisphere is only now entering the flu season.
“We must therefore be prepared,” Mr. Ban stressed. “Our best response is a firm demonstration of global solidarity.”
The Secretary-General said he will convene a meeting of the Influenza Steering Committee in New York on Monday to “map out our immediate next steps.” This will be prior to the opening session of his Forum on Advancing Global Health in the Face of Crisis.
He pledged to work with national governments and WHO to ensure that the response to the pandemic is as well-coordinated and as effective as possible.
The Secretary-General highlighted that access to vaccines and anti-virals – in addition to antibiotics and other commodities – is crucial. At a meeting he convened with Dr. Chan last month in Geneva, more than two dozen pharmaceutical companies agreed to contribute part of their vaccine production to vulnerable nations, upon request by WHO.
Manufacturing of pandemic vaccines has already begun, and the first doses will be available in September 2009, Mr. Ban noted, adding that, at the same time, virus samples and other information about the disease must also be widely and openly shared.
It is also important to guard against “rash and discriminatory” action such as travel bans or trade restrictions, he stated, pointing out that the response to any pandemic must be grounded in science.
Noting that the impact will be felt far beyond the health sector and will require coordination on every front, the Secretary-General stressed the need to safeguard the interests of those who are most vulnerable.