The Director-General of the World Health Organization, , says the risk of an avian influenza pandemic is real and not exaggerated. Dr. Lee told delegates attending a week-long conference that the threat must be taken seriously and action to prevent a pandemic from occurring must be intensified.
WHO Director-General, Lee Jong-Wook, rebuffs suggestions that the World Health Organization is exaggerating the risk of a bird flu pandemic that could potentially kill millions of people around the world.
"Concern has been expressed that we are overplaying this threat. We are not. We can only reduce the devastating human and economic impact of a pandemic if we all take the threat seriously now and prepare thoroughly. This is a global problem," he said.
The World Health Organization predicts between two and 7.4 million people could die from a bird flu pandemic.
The H5N1 bird flu virus has killed at least 80 people in six countries since late 2003. Until recently, all of these deaths occurred in Asian countries. But, recently, the disease was transmitted from infected birds to humans in Turkey. WHO reports more than 20 people in Turkey have been infected with the disease. Of these, four children have died.
Dr. Lee says the situation in Turkey is unique. He says the appearance of human cases of avian influenza in that country was unexpected. This is different from Asia where outbreaks of the H5N1 virus were detected in poultry well before the virus occurred in humans.
The WHO Chief says there was almost no prior warning of infection in poultry in the eastern part of Turkey.
"The Turkey experience demonstrates the dangers posed by avian influenza in birds and the vital importance of surveillance and effective early warning systems," said Dr. Lee. "It also reiterates the threat of a pandemic of influenza in humans. A pandemic could arise with little or no warning from the animal side."
Dr. Lee says the recent experience shows how fast both governments and the international community can move in a crisis. He notes within one day, samples from patients in Turkey were collected, shipped, and received in Britain. He says the results were available within 24 hours.
The World Health Organization reports that human cases seem to be going down in Turkey following a mass cull of poultry and a public education campaign.
The World Health Organization says experts will help several neighboring countries at risk of getting bird flu to assess the situation. They include Syria, Iran, Iraq, Ukraine, Georgia, and Azerbaijan.