About 60 experts meeting at the Geneva-based World Health Organization have agreed on a strategy to try to prevent and contain a global influenza outbreak that they say could kill millions of people.
The experts say it is not a question of if, but when the next influenza outbreak will strike. The head of WHO's Global Influenza Program, Klaus Stohr, says widespread outbreaks of disease - or pandemics - are natural recurring phenomena. "Knowing that the next pandemic will come, we feel that we should be prepared and there are certainly several levels of preparedness which countries can take, which global organizations like WHO can take, which industry can take."
The World Health Organization has set up a so-called epidemic nerve center. The center is hooked into a network of 120 laboratories and surveillance centers around the world. Its staff tracks epidemics such as SARS, Ebola, meningitis, typhoid and Avian Flu. They can instantly exchange and receive information about the status of an epidemic to and from any of these places. If necessary, WHO says it can send international experts to any hot spot in the world within 24 to 48 hours.
Angus Nicoll of the health protection agency in Britain says since the epidemic of Severe Acute Respiratory Illness, known as SARS, people in all parts of the world are looking for outbreaks of this and other infections.
"It was essential for us to see that other countries have got the ability to pick up these infections where they start. And, they may not just start in Asia. We have seen in the past two years, outbreaks of bird flu in the Netherlands and in Canada. So, you have got the possibility that it may be emerging first in an industrialized country as well," he said.
Dr. Stohr says the H5N1 virus that causes bird flu in Asia poses the biggest risk for the next pandemic. This year 44 people were infected with the virus, 33 of them died. He says the fact that this virus has the ability to infect humans makes it dangerous.
Dr. Stohr says those countries that have people infected with the virus should report this immediately to WHO and should take measures to contain the disease. "We also recommend to countries, if there was clusters of outbreak of cases that they would try to isolate patients, would have good hospital infection guidelines to make sure that there is no further transmission," he said. "And, for each of the other phases, there are very detailed recommendations to reduce morbidity, mortality, to slow down the spread and to buy time to implement other measures."
Dr. Stohr says progress toward a bird flu vaccine is being made, but drug companies will not be able to produce enough vaccine for everybody in the world.