The World Health Organization (WHO) is urging countries to prepare for a bird flu pandemic with the potential to kill millions of people worldwide if the disease mutates. The U.N. health agency is urging countries to stockpile antiviral drugs and take other steps to prepare for the worst.
WHO Director-General Lee Jong-wook says the longer the current bird flu virus strain, known as H5N1, continues to circulate, the greater the risk that the virus will become easily transmittable between humans and trigger a pandemic.
"It will be hugely irresponsible if WHO and the member states do not take preventive preparations against this potential pandemic now," he said. "Because of the huge sufferings and deaths and cost and so on that we must do it. We do not know when this will come. I hope that this will not hit us. I do not want to be right."
Dr. Lee says WHO is building a stockpile of antiviral drugs for rapid response were a pandemic to start. He says this is an important part of WHO's work, to prepare for, detect and mitigate the impact of a potential flu pandemic.
Wednesday, Swiss Pharmaceutical company, Roche, contributed to the stockpile with a donation of 30 million capsules of the antiviral Oseltamivir. The drug is one of the only treatments available for humans who contract the disease.
Dr. Lee says antiviral drugs from the stockpile will be sent to people in greatest need at the site of an emerging influenza pandemic. He says this antiviral stockpile could especially help people in poorer countries.
"We will work with affected countries to deliver the medicines to the people who need them. This could give us time to develop and produce an effective vaccine and time for countries to implement other emergency measures such as ensuring enough medical staff and facilities [are] available and preventing spread by closing schools or other public places," said Dr. Lee.
The World Health Organization chief calls the stockpile of drugs just a first step. He says it does not replace the urgent need for countries to develop their own pandemic preparedness plans. He says coordinated and effective action by all nations can lower the death toll and reduce the suffering and social disruption a pandemic would otherwise cause.
Since the bird flu began spreading around Asia several years ago, 112 human cases of bird flu have been reported, including 57 deaths in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia.
New outbreaks have recently been confirmed in birds in Kazakhstan, Mongolia and the Russian Federation, sparking renewed fears the disease could evolve into a global influenza pandemic if the bird flu virus changes into a form that spreads easily among people.