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Bird Flu Pandemic High on World Health Assembly Agenda


The 192-nation World Health Assembly will consider ways to speed up efforts to contain a potential pandemic resulting from bird flu. More than 100 health ministers are attending the World Health Organization's annual conference to lay out the public health agenda for the group's work in the coming year.

The World Health Assembly took a long time to get down to business following the untimely death of World Health Organization's Director-General Lee Jong-wook.

WHO Executive Director Bill Keane read a few prepared remarks from a more comprehensive speech that was to be given by Dr. Lee.

The speech outlines important public health initiatives, one of the most important being avian influenza. The World Health Organization is calling on countries to speed up measures to control and contain a possible bird flu pandemic that could kill millions of people.

It warns countries that have not been hit by bird flu against complacency. Dr. Lee wrote they should use the time to prepare and protect themselves against the killer disease.

Dr. Keane draws attention to the action taken this past year by 25 countries to get polio eradication efforts back on track. Most of these countries, which had been polio free, were re-infected with a polio virus from Nigeria.

Keene says mass immunization campaigns have been successful and only four polio endemic countries remain. He says India and Pakistan should be polio free by the end of the year and Afghanistan is making excellent progress in stamping out the disease

"Now the world is looking to Nigeria," said Bill Keane. "Up to half of the children are still being missed in the Northern States. This represents the last uncontrolled reservoir of polio in the world. The world has invested $4 billion, so far, in polio eradication. I appeal to you all to continue your support, both political and financial until the job is finished."

Keane notes that things are not going well with malaria control. He says many lives could be saved with simple tools, such as insecticide treated mosquito nets.

He says artemisin combination drug therapy can save lives.

"Many researchers are pursuing the ultimate goal of an effective vaccine against this disease," he said. "Yet, malaria remains the biggest cause of death for children under five in Africa. We accept our responsibility for this. Now is not the time for shyness. WHO will exercise much greater leadership in malaria control. We respect the excellent work of many partners fighting this disease. But, we must get back on track very quickly."

Keane says HIV/AIDS remains a huge problem and universal access to care and treatment that can extend life must become a reality. He says this means no one should die for lack of drugs.

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