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WHO Urges Countries to Prepare for Influenza Pandemic

The World Health Organization is urging countries around the world to prepare now for a possible influenza pandemic. An expert committee of health officials recommends that the World Health Assembly's 192-member states take steps now to prepare for an illness which, it says, has the potential of killing millions of people around the world.

The World Health Organization warns against complacency that, it says, could be deadly. It urges governments to move ahead with the production and stockpiling of vaccines and anti-viral drugs.

WHO spokesman, Ian Simpson, says it is critical that nations be prepared to protect their populations against a predicted influenza pandemic.

"It is necessary because we know that a pandemic is coming," said Mr. Simpson. "The only thing that we do not know is when. We know that historically, flu pandemics have always come in 25 to 30 year cycles. The last one was in the late 1960's, so we are long overdue for a flu pandemic. And, we expect that there will be a pandemic at some point in the near future. It is not possible to say when. That is why it is important. But, the main efforts that are being made to prepare are to ensure that countries have a pandemic plan."

Mr. Simpson explains countries must think about what they would do to protect their populations and minimize deaths when a pandemic comes. For example, he says governments must figure out who will get anti-flu drugs and vaccines. They must decide whether hospitals will be open to everyone or only to flu victims and whether they should close their borders to travelers from flu-infected countries.

The World Health Organization is worried that the H5N1 virus, which causes bird flu, could trigger an influenza pandemic, killing millions of people worldwide. Scientists say the bird flu virus is changing in ways that could enable the infection to be transmitted from one human being to another.

Since late 2003, WHO reports nearly 100 adults and children in Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia have fallen ill from bird flu. More than 50 have died.

Mr. Simpson says the Committee of health experts strongly recommends that animal and human health agencies at every level work closely together.

"Historically new viruses for influenza have always come from bird populations through animals," he said. "So, it is important that if new strains of influenza are circulating among animals or among birds and those are identified, those, obviously are going to be identified by people working on animal health and not on human health. So, it is important that that information is shared so that people working on human health have adequate warning - that a new strain of influenza is beginning to circulate."

WHO spokesman Simpson says it is important that human and animal health agencies coordinate their approaches toward monitoring and tackling viruses detected in humans and poultry.