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UN Urges Governments to Prepare for Possible Influenza Pandemic

A senior U.N. health official warns that governments must better prepare themselves to fight an influenza pandemic should one break out. Citing a new World Bank report that says the economic price tag of an influenza outbreak could top $3 trillion, David Nabarro says international cooperation is vital. From United Nation's headquarters in New York, VOA's Margaret Besheer has more.

Five years ago avian flu began spreading across Asia, Europe and Africa killing poultry, wild birds and then humans. Since then, the U.N. says there have been some 245 human deaths in 15 countries.

U.N. Influenza Coordinator Doctor David Nabarro warns that while many governments have plans in place to fight an influenza outbreak, such as bird flu, they have not been thoroughly tested and could fail when an outbreak actually starts.

He said that while the threat of an avian flu pandemic has decreased, the danger posed by other influenza viruses has not.

"The threat of influenza pandemic is still as it was three or four years ago," said David Nabarro. "And this is because although we are very concentrating on one particular bird flu virus that we worry may be the cause of the next influenza pandemic, the fact is unfortunately, any influenza virus could cause a pandemic and we just cannot say for certain when the next pandemic will come, where it will start, or even how severe it will be."

Nabarro said the statistics show bird flu to be a much milder threat now than it was just three years ago.

"When we look at the situation now compared with then, we see that the number of countries that have been newly infected is greatly reduced, the number of outbreaks that occur is greatly reduced, and the overall situation - with the exception of a small number of countries - is much lighter than it was in 2005," he said.

Nabarro said the avian flu virus is still entrenched in two countries - Indonesia and Egypt - and it continues to resurface periodically in Pakistan, parts of China, Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and South Korea. He also expressed some concern about Nigeria, which recently announced its first bird flu outbreak in nearly 10 months, and Togo, which has also had a recent outbreak.

On Saturday, Egypt is convening an international meeting on both avian and human influenza. The conference is intended to review pandemic preparedness and assess what more needs to be done to improve an international response.