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Nations recognize urgency of bird flu, pandemic risks

State Department hosts 80 nations to plot coordinated efforts

Posted: October 14, 2005

Washington – High-level representatives from some 80 nations and eight international organizations convened at the U.S. State Department October 7 in the first organizational session of the International Partnership on Avian and Pandemic Influenza.

“Our goal really is to elevate the issue on national agendas, to coordinate efforts among donors and affected countries to leverage resources wherever we can,” said a senior State Department official in a press briefing, “and, in particular, to increase the transparency and the timeliness of disease reporting.”

President Bush announced formation of the partnership at the U.N. General Assembly session in New York September 14.

“If left unchallenged, this virus could become the first pandemic of the 21st century,” Bush told the United Nations. “We must not allow that to happen.”

President Bush and Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt met with leaders of the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry October 7 about their role in the prevention of an influenza pandemic.

A strain of avian influenza known as H5N1 has appeared in 11 nations since December 2003, causing the deaths of an estimated 150 million birds.

In 116 cases so far confirmed by the World Health Organization (WHO), the disease has infected humans, resulting in 60 deaths in four nations.

In Indonesia, one of the affected nations, health officials suspect that dozens more sick patients also may have bird flu, but their cases have not yet received official laboratory confirmation by WHO.

All but a handful of these sick people developed the disease after exposure to sick birds.

International health officials are worried that the H5N1 virus is on the verge of undergoing a transformation, allowing easy transmission from person to person through casual contact.

Those are the conditions that could set a global pandemic in motion because this particular strain of influenza only rarely has infected humans.

Prior to 1997, when human cases of H5N1 first appeared in Hong Kong, health officials thought that people were not susceptible to this strain of bird flu.

Because humans lack prior exposure to this virus, they lack immunity, making vast numbers vulnerable to illness and death.

“Disease, as we know, does not respect borders and spreads quickly across them,” said Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky, speaking to partnership representatives October 6.

“If avian flu does mutate to allow easier human to human transmission,” she added, “the results would be catastrophic locally, regionally and globally.”

WHO’s official prediction is that a global pandemic of bird flu could cause 2 million to 7.4 million deaths.

Tens of millions more would suffer illness, numbers so significant that health officials envision the closure of workplaces and schools, disruptions in travel and trade, actions which could cause social and economic havoc.

“We are all very aware that every hour, every day, every week, every month matters right now in terms of getting as prepared as possible,” said a top U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) official in a press briefing.

Bird flu has become the top priority for USAID Director Andrew Natsios, he added.

PARTNERSHIP GOALS

A senior State Department official said the partnership meetings will focus on three primary topics in this initial session:

•Prevention: Limiting the spread of the disease and reducing the risk to humans.

•Response and containment: Planning rapid action at the first sign of sustained human transmission.

•Preparedness and planning: Developing national plans for action in the event of outbreaks.

Sharing information is a critical element in any international strategy. Because of the capability of infectious disease to spread rapidly through travel and trade, officials say, every nation must be willing to alert others and seek help if necessary at the first sign of sustained human transmission.

“What we’re trying to do is encourage in a nonthreatening way and a very collaborative way that a community of nations like this partnership has a collective responsibility,” said a senior official from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

The HHS official, who participated in the October 6 background briefing, added that “all members have a responsibility to each other, working with the international organizations, for the good of the rest of mankind, to share information that they have as early as possible, as accurately as possible.”

TRANSPARENCY

When an individual poultry farmer finds he has chickens dying, however, the good of mankind may not be the first thing on his mind.

The farmer is thinking about immediate business questions – will he lose more birds, will the markets refuse those who survive, will he suffer an economic loss, can his operation survive that loss, can his family?

In the face of those hard economic realities, farmers have an incentive to conceal sickness among their flocks.

When sickness is concealed, it can spread further and faster, and that is when health officials fear they lose all opportunity to contain spread of the virus.

Another goal of the partnership meeting is to win commitments from top-level officials of the 80 participating nations that they will adhere to the principle of transparency, disease surveillance and information sharing.

“If national governments in Southeast Asia and the Far East and Eurasia are able to tell us early, be honest with us, share epidemiological samples with us that might give us better scientific indication of what's happening, there is an opportunity for us to intervene and we're ready to do so,” said the HHS official.

“But without that kind of early cooperation,” he added, “we will pull back to the next firebreak because we have to begin to protect ourselves.”

Health officials point to the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak to emphasize the importance of transparency.

Some nations withheld information about an unusual, highly infectious disease for months after it was first detected in late 2002, when an earlier warning may have prevented its spread to 26 countries on five continents, with 8,000 infections and almost 800 deaths.

“We’re very hopeful that every single government in Asia learned a great lesson out of the SARS epidemic,” the HHS official said.

For more information on U.S. and international efforts to combat avian influenza, see Bird Flu and fact sheets on the issue.


Charlene Porter
Washington File Staff Writer

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