More than 400 animal and human health experts, senior policy makers, economists, and industry representatives gather in Geneva this week to develop a common approach for protecting the world from a human flu pandemic that could be triggered by avian influenza.
A series of meetings have been held in different parts of the world leading up to what some people are calling, this make-or-break conference. Jitters are growing around the world about a potential human influenza pandemic that could kill millions of people.
Spokesman Ian Simpson of the World Health Organization, one of four sponsoring agencies, says it is critical to work out a coordinated strategy to control the virus in domestic animals, and to prepare for a human pandemic.
"It is important to emphasize there is no pandemic virus circulating now. And, we do not know when a pandemic virus will begin to circulate. We just know that, at some point in the future, it will... We think it is very important for all countries to prepare to deal with a potential human pandemic. And, again we do not know when it will come. But, we think that it will come," said Mr. Simpson. "So, we think it is very important that all countries do what they can."
More than 60 people in Asia have died from the H5N1 avian influenza virus. The disease has spread to birds in Europe, and it is feared migratory birds could carry it to Africa, as well. The World Health Organization warns the H5N1 virus could mutate into a form easily passed between people, and ignite a human influenza pandemic.
WHO notes the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed at least 40 million people originated from a virus in birds. Since then, millions of people have died in flu pandemics that occurred in the 1950's and 1960's.
Mr. Simpson says the experts gathering at WHO headquarters in Geneva will discuss the latest developments in vaccine research, other anti-viral tools and information on what is being done to control the current outbreak in birds.
"A lot of attention is being focused on the potential outbreak in people. That is important. But we also have to accept that there is a huge outbreak happening now in birds, both poultry and domestic birds, and also in wild birds, which is moving, and has been identified in different parts of the world," added Mr. Simpson. "It is important to focus very strongly on that, because controlling that outbreak will help us to prevent or limit the potential for a pandemic in people."
The World Health Organization says strengthening global disease surveillance systems will be high on the meeting's agenda. It says early detection and rapid response mechanisms are essential to track the evolution of the H5N1 virus.
Therefore, it says, delegates also will discuss ways to strengthen veterinary and human health services, so they can quickly identify H5N1 cases in animals or humans. In addition to the WHO, the three-day meeting, which begins Monday, is also being sponsored by the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Organization for Animal Health and the World Bank.