About 150 experts from governments, the World Health Organization, and other organizations are meeting to work on new guidelines to help nations confront and combat a potential influenza pandemic. The World Health Organization, which is hosting the week-long meeting, says governments must be prepared. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from the opening of the conference in Geneva.
The World Health Organization says it is certain that one day the world will face a human influenza pandemic. But, it adds no one knows when that will happen.
The Coordinator of WHO's Global Influenza Program, Keiji Fukuda, says the near term risk of an avian influenza pandemic breaking out among humans is anyone's guess. Therefore, he says, it becomes all the more important that governments be prepared to help their people survive a disease that could potentially kill millions.
"If we are able to detect the first emergence of a pandemic early enough, then we will try to contain it and we will have a short window to do that. And, if we do not contain it or if it is beyond our ability to even try to do it from the beginning, then we will enter into a pandemic period, which will be the spread of what is now a human virus around the world. We are talking about trying to stop the first emergence, to slow the first emergence of a pandemic influenza," he said.
H5N1, the virus that causes bird flu, is largely an animal disease. Humans that have become sick have had close contact with infected poultry. Scientists are worried that one-day H5N1 will mutate into a form that can be easily transmitted from human to human.
To prevent this from happening, the World Health Organization is leading a global effort to make sure all nations are prepared to meet this challenge.
Dr. Fukuda says the world is in a much better position to deal with the flu threats now than it was before. He says scientists have a number of concepts and tools that were not available a few years ago.
"We are in a period in which information on a number of different aspects of influenza is just burgeoning. In many ways, we are in a kind of scientific renaissance, but the technical information about a number of different issues have really increased at a huge pace ... So our understanding of the virus, the effects on people, the epidemiology, how viruses move around the world is much greater than it was a few years ago and this continues," he said.
Dr. Fukuda says advances have been made in the development of an H5N1 vaccine and in anti-viral drugs. He says the World Health Organization has a large stockpile of these drugs and plans are afoot to increase the supply of future vaccines.
The meeting this week will focus on areas such as disease control, surveillance, medical interventions, and the role of communications during an influenza pandemic.
Dr. Fukuda says the World Health Organization expects to publish new guidelines by the end of the year to help nations prepare for flu outbreaks.