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UN Expert Says World Unprepared for Avian Flu Pandemic

  • Lisa Schlein

A top United Nations expert on Avian influenza says the world is not yet ready to protect itself from a potential avian influenza pandemic that could kill millions of people. He says it will take another few years before countries complete their pandemic preparedness plans. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

Health experts are concerned that the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus will transform itself into the virus that causes the next human pandemic.

David Nabarro is senior U.N. systems coordinator for avian and human influenza. He says many uncertainties surround the disease. But, what is certain, he says, is that there will be a human influenza pandemic some time in the future.

He says no one knows when or where this will happen or how severe it will be. But, he says, given the potential magnitude of human suffering and of the economic consequences, it is essential to be prepared.

He says most countries have some kind of pandemic preparedness plan in the works.

"Unfortunately, only a relatively small proportion are adequately prepared to keep going in the event that the pandemic has massive absenteeism associated with it. And we need hard work for at least two or three years more to make sure that the whole world is properly pandemic ready. It is not easy. But, I will tell you one thing: being prepared for a pandemic will help countries to be prepared for other mega-catastrophes, not just those that are due to infectious disease," said Dr. Nabarro.

The World Health Organization reports bird flu has spread to about 60 countries and territories. It says the H5N1 virus appears to be entrenched in the poultry populations of Indonesia, northern Egypt and parts of Nigeria, Bangladesh, China and Vietnam.

Bird flu remains a largely animal disease. But, latest figures show about 350 people who had close contact with diseased poultry have become infected and more than 200 have died.

Dr. Nabarro says health experts fear that one day H5N1 or another animal virus will mutate into a form that could spread easily from one human to another.

In anticipation of this, he says WHO is working with national authorities to make sure they will be able to respond promptly to contain the virus wherever it emerges.

"That prompt response has to be within days," said Dr. Nabarro. "WHO has worked with countries to develop protocols for rapid response and has also been ensuring that there are adequate stockpiles of Oseltamivir or Tamiflu, which is part of the rapid response. WHO is also working on trying to ensure that there will be a plan that can be put into place for rapid production of pandemic vaccines once the new virus appears and also is looking at the possibility of vaccines against H5N1 in humans stockpiled."

Dr. Nabarro says it will take drug companies about six months to manufacture vaccines against avian influenza once a pandemic appears and the viral strain is identified. He says millions of people could die during that period.

Should avian influenza strike, he says people should stay away from crowds. They should wear protective gear, such as masks and they should use the anti-viral drug Tamiflu.

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