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WHO Warns Flu Pandemic Could Hit Human Population Any Time - 2004-03-18

The World Health Organization says urgent steps must be taken to prepare for a human influenza pandemic, which could happen anytime in the near future.

The World Health Organization says it is just a matter of time before an influenza pandemic occurs.

The head of WHO's Global Influenza Program, Klaus Stohr, said it is urgent to prepare now for a new outbreak because, he explained, since the last pandemic occurred in 1968, there have been 12 possible pandemic events. He said five of them have occurred during the last year - and, he said, one virus is to blame for the majority of events in the last three years.

"So, the influenza experts say that this virus is sneaking around the corner," he explained. "It is ready to get fit in order to jump into the human population. So, we have a situation, which looks slightly different from the past. We have a suspect, and the suspect is behaving suspiciously, and that is why we believe that measures should be taken quickly, in order to deal with this increased risk for the occurrence of a pandemic."

Some Asian governments have announced the disappearance of bird flu from their countries. However, WHO says outbreaks are still occurring. And, it warns, as long as the avian and human flu viruses are circulating in the environment, the ingredients for a human pandemic still exist.

Eight countries in Asia have been affected by a particularly virulent form of bird flu. More than 100 million birds have either died or been culled to stop the virus from spreading. Twenty-three people have died from the disease in Thailand and Vietnam.

Health specialist from Australia, Aileen Plant, is one of more than 100 health experts who attended WHO's emergency meeting. She said a global surveillance system is critical in trying to head-off an influenza pandemic. She said all countries must have access to rapid diagnostic tests.

"That sounds really easy to say, but it is, of course, quite difficult for many countries to be able to have access to those tests, to be able to use them, to have good quality assurance and to send the specimens on to reference laboratories to confirm what they find," she said. "But, a quick diagnosis in the early phases, that is what we need. We need mandatory reporting internationally. And, of course, we need the capacity to investigate clusters of disease. Cluster surveillance is key to knowing whether we have got true human-to-human transmission."

There is a potential problem. Until the influenza strain is known, vaccines against a pandemic cannot be manufactured. Then, it takes between four and six months to produce the vaccine. The WHO says the stock of vaccine is likely to be very limited.

The WHO says during this period, efforts must be made to either stop the virus from spreading or blunt its impact. It says anti-viral drugs can be of some benefit as can existing flu vaccines.