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UN Official Says Governments Must Prepare For Bird Flu

The recently appointed U.N. coordinator for avian and human influenza, Doctor David Nabarro, says no efforts taken by governments concerned with a possible human influenza pandemic are wasteful. He says it is not known when or where the pandemic will erupt, but he makes clear it could take six months before adequate stocks of vaccine are in place.

Efforts are mounting at the international level to deal with the potential risk of an outbreak of human influenza, stemming from a mutant virus of avian influenza. Experts around the world are coordinating their work to ensure they are prepared for the pandemic, if it arrives.

Less than two weeks ago, the United Nations appointed David Nabarro, a former World Health Organization official, as coordinator for avian and human influenza. He says a human influenza pandemic is inevitable, but there are too many uncertain factors to be able to make a prediction.

"There will be an influenza pandemic sometime, but we do not know when," said David Nabarro. "It could be mild, it could be severe, it could be extremely severe."

Dr. Nabarro says in order to prepare the global response to the current epidemic affecting bird populations in several countries, particularly in relation to the virus H5N1, must be intensified.

He says governments are having to make very difficult choices. While preventive measures are being taken, many are concerned existing vaccines may be useless.

"We do not know what the genetic make-up of the eventual mutant virus will be and therefore we cannot be sure that existing vaccines being stored up will be effective," he said. "Once the mutant virus emerges with pandemic potential it will be necessary to move quickly, to prepare the antigen and then to start production of the vaccines."

The U.N. official says at present it would take about six months for a vaccine to be developed and for adequate stocks to be made available. He says that length of time needs to be shortened and the World Health Organization is looking at options to get a scaling up of vaccine production capacity.

"I think that the general view in a pandemic situation is that we would need to have a vaccine much more quickly than six months, because of the speed with which the pandemic can take hold and start to affect the functioning of society and cause suffering," explained Dr. Nabarro.

More than 60 people have died from the H5N1 avian flu virus in Asia since 2003. An outbreak of avian flu was confirmed this week in Turkey and thousands of birds are being slaughtered. The European Union has banned imports of live birds from Turkey and similar action could be taken against other countries if outbreaks are reported.