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Avian Influenza and the Threat of a Pandemic Are Serious Risks to World Health

Ambassador John E. Lange, former U.S. Ambassador to Botswana, currently Special Representative on Avian and Pandemic Influenza at the U.S. Department of State, says avian influenza and the threat of a pandemic are serious risks to world health. He cautioned that if the avian virus (also known as H5N1) mutates and forms a pandemic like the one in 1918, it could kill tens of millions of people throughout the world.

Ambassador Lange spoke with host Carol Castiel, VOA Science and Medicine Correspondent Jessica Berman, and VOA Producer Libby Massey on Press Conference, USA in Washington in advance of the 6th International Ministerial Conference on Avian and Pandemic Influenza in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt on October 24-26, 2008.

Ambassador Lange explained that avian influenza is most prevalent in Egypt, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Indonesia, and other countries in Southeast Asia. Several recent outbreaks have occurred in these countries, reminding leaders of the gravity of the problem. Avian influenza has not yet reached the Western Hemisphere, but if the virus mutated, that part of the world could quickly become affected.

Ambassador Lange said the upcoming Ministerial Conference would review best practices and challenges related to prevention and control of avian flu, pandemic preparedness and response, and the recently discovered link between animal and human health in emerging infectious diseases. Ministers and representatives from more than 100 countries, including a large U.S. delegation, will attend the conclave in Sharm el Sheikh.

Ambassador Lange placed the threat of avian and pandemic influenza within the larger context of global health issues competing for limited resources. He acknowledged that compared to diseases like HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, avian influenza today remains a more distant threat. However, he warned that if the avian virus mutates, the ensuing pandemic could be global and devastating, spreading rapidly and affecting millions. According to Ambassador Lange, it would be the event of our lifetime.

To hear the complete interview with Ambassador Lange, click here to listen to this week’s Press Conference, USA online, or as a podcast.