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Avian Flu Figures High on World Health Assembly Agenda 

  • Lisa Schlein

Efforts to strengthen preparedness and response to a possible avian flu pandemic are expected to figure high on the agenda of the 59th World Health Assembly in Geneva. About 100 ministers of health and other expert health officials will be attending the week-long conference, which begins Monday.

When the World Health Organization's 192 members meet, they will be asked to speed up the implementation of the new International Health Regulations. The regulations tell states how to deal with diseases that may become a public health emergency. They are supposed to come into force in the summer of 2007.

But, an adviser to WHO's director-general, Dennis Aitken, says member states will be asked to voluntarily implement the regulations regarding an avian flu pandemic, given the seriousness of a potential outbreak. Health experts fear the disease may mutate into a form that could spread easily among humans.

"We have a more formal procedure for surveillance that member states will voluntarily agree will inform us under those regulations through formal focal points," he said. "We will also nominate our own formal focal points. There will be the ability to set up a committee of experts on this subject-we are already almost there in setting this up-who will advise the director-general on the necessary actions to take in that area."

The World Health Assembly will also take up a number of perennial health issues. They include universal care for HIV/AIDS patients, polio eradication, sickle-cell anemia, the prevention and control of sexually transmitted infections and the prevention of avoidable blindness.

In addition, delegates are expected to debate the destruction of the smallpox virus. Since the disease was eradicated in 1979, a small stock of the virus has been held in laboratories in the United States and Russia. Some countries want the virus to be destroyed. Others say it should be held for research purposes.

Before the assembly actually begins tackling these issues, Aitken says it will debate the merits of granting observer status to Taiwan . This is the 10th time this controversial matter will come up.

China regards Taiwan as a renegade province and says only sovereign states are entitled to take part in the assembly. Aitken says Taiwan's bid probably will fail. Nevertheless, he says Taiwan's exclusion will not create problems in the global fight against infectious diseases such as bird flu.

"The agreement that we have with China on the Taiwanese issue allows us to send experts to Taiwan in emergency situations immediately," he said. "And, so - as we did during SARS - to be honest, if there was any indications of problems in Taiwan that we felt was a public health emergency that could not be dealt with, we would send experts to Taiwan to deal with the issue under the existing agreement that we have with China."

This year the World Health Assembly's keynote speaker is Britain's Prince Charles. The Prince of Wales is president of the Prince's Foundation for integrated Health and patron of a number of health charities.

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