Part of President Bush's new plan to combat bird flu provides money and technical assistance to nations to help them detect and contain outbreaks before they spread.
Public health officials point out that to fight any disease effectively, they have to know where it breaks out as quickly as possible. World Health Organization Director-General Lee Jong-Wook says health ministers from 30 nations meeting in Ottawa recently agreed that immediate detection is key to containing bird flu.
"We just said that, clearly, we need to work very hard to strengthen surveillance because the core of the strategy is we have to know at the very beginning of an outbreak, and we have to pounce," he said. "So if we don't know, it might just spread. Even [if it is] a few days, even a week before we know, that probably will be too late."
As a result, the Bush administration's plan to protect the United States against pandemic influenza sets aside a portion of the proposed seven billion dollar outlay to ensure early warning of an outbreak among animals or people anywhere in the world. The president's adviser for biological defense policy, Rajeev Venkayya, summarizes the goals.
"We're looking at a total of $251 million that is principally directed towards supporting activities to improve surveillance and early warning, scientific cooperation, transparency in nations, building of laboratory capacity, establishing emergency response plans in nations, and building of general capacity in these regions to not only to respond, but also to produce their own vaccine and perhaps someday their own antivirals to deal with the outbreak," he said.
Dr. Venkayya, a physician, says these are the goals of the U.S. International Partnership on Avian and Pandemic Influenza, which President Bush announced at the United Nations in September. The White House says the partnership aims to bring key nations together to improve global readiness by elevating the issue on their national agendas and coordinating efforts among donor and affected nations.
Dr. Venkayya says 88 countries have agreed to the core principles, which include openness of reporting animal and human flu cases and immediate sharing of disease data and biological samples with the international community. The partnership also calls on member nations to react rapidly to the first signs of an avian flu outbreak and to work with key international agencies, such as the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization.
"If you want to be a country that is part of the partnership, you have to be willing to sign up to those principles," he said. "While we can't require, because that sounds like a legal instrument, we can strongly encourage and we can also bring to bear all of the diplomatic pressure of our international partners, the other 88 nations, to make sure that nations do the right thing if something develops within their borders."
Dr. Venkayya acknowledges that the $251 million the President proposes for global flu surveillance and containment sounds like a small amount compared to the seven billion dollar size of his overall pandemic flu protection program. But he points out that the bulk of the budget is devoted to measures that would also help the world, such as research into new flu countermeasures and increasing vaccine and antiviral production capacity.