The World Health Organization says it hopes to head off an avian flu pandemic by containing or slowing the disease in humans before the virus can spread. The U.N. Health Agency has presented details of a proposed new rapid response plan approved by 70 public health experts this week.
The new strategy aims to stop the transmission of bird flu from person to person should that become necessary. For this to happen, public health experts say it is critical to quickly identify a new influenza virus that can pass easily from person to person.
Presently, avian influenza is mostly an animal disease. Of the 175 people infected with the virus, 96 have died. All became sick after close contact with infected birds. The World Health Organization warns millions of people could die if the H5N1 virus in birds mutates into a form that could spread easily among humans.
WHO's Influenza Program Coordinator, Keiji Fukuda, says the new containment plan will try to stop a pandemic before it expands. He says containing a pandemic at its source has never been tried before. He adds there is a good chance the plan may fail.
"However, there is also a very good chance that if we mount this kind of effort, we may slow down the spread of a pandemic virus early on, and if we do that, if we buy some substantial amount of time - and that means weeks - then we can really increase the chances for having more vaccine available more rapidly,” said Dr. Fukuda. “It will give countries more time to prepare."
Public health experts attending a meeting in Geneva this week say there is evidence that suggests containment may work. They note the first outbreak of the avian influenza virus H5N1 was contained in Hong Kong in 1997. They say coordinated global action succeeded in stopping the emergence of severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS in 2003.
Dr. Fukuda says the new strategy will involve different elements. He says specially trained health workers will be sent to areas where human to human transmission of the H5N1 virus is suspected. He says anti-viral drug supplies will have to be sent quickly where needed.
Dr. Fukuda says one of the biggest unresolved issues is that of quarantine and containment.
"So, if we have a situation where we have infected people, I think that there are certain measures that need to be put in place,” he said, “such as, putting the people who are infected in isolation, using anti-viral drugs for the people who are infected and then identifying those people who are in close contact to see whether they develop infection and so on. But, some of the unresolved issues are that if you do that kind of procedure, how would you do it in a rural setting? How would you do it in a large urban setting? How would you set the boundaries?"
Dr. Fukuda says it is not possible to predict where a pandemic might emerge. Therefore, people everywhere must be prepared. He says a single, generic plan cannot cover every country in the world. Dr. Fukuda says discussions to draw up plans tailored to each country situation will take place later in the year, beginning with currently affected countries.