Winding up a three-day United Nations-sponsored conference aimed at pre-empting a deadly human pandemic of bird flu, more than 600 delegates from over 100 countries today outlined a six-point global action plan, ranging from curbing the virus in birds to enhanced detection to funding for countries at risk.
"The international solidarity to confront these threats is clear," UN World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Lee Jong-wook told the final session at his agency's headquarters in Geneva, ahead of a donors' conference in Beijing in January.
"The urgency of acting now is felt by us all. Precise recommendations for action have emerged. Equally, precise offers of help and support have been put forward, by both developing and industrialized countries," he added. "We have plans on paper, but we must now test them. Once a pandemic virus appears, it will be too late."
Although the current H5N1 virus, linked to widespread poultry outbreaks beginning nearly two years ago in Viet Nam and Thailand, has only infected 125 humans so far, killing 64 of them, health experts have warned that the virus could evolve into a global human influenza pandemic if it mutates into a form which could transmit easily among people. The so-called Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1920 is estimated to have killed from 20 million to 40 million people worldwide.
The global plan seeks to control avian influenza in animals and simultaneously limit the threat of a human pandemic. Participants stressed the urgent need for financial and other resources for countries already affected as well as those most at risk from the virus, currently circulating in animals in Asia and parts of Europe. Key components are:
- Control at Source in Birds – improving veterinary services, emergency preparedness and control, including culling, vaccination and compensation, and helping countries to curb avian influenza in animals.
- Surveillance – strengthening early detection and rapid response systems for animal and human flu, and enhancing
- Rapid Containment – training for investigation of animal and human cases and clusters, and planning and testing of rapid
- Pandemic Preparedness – building and testing national pandemic preparedness plans, conducting a global pandemic
response exercise, enhancing health systems, training clinicians and health managers.
- Integrated Country Plans – developing national plans across all sectors to provide the basis for coordinated technical
and financial support.
- Communications – factual and transparent communications, in particular risk communication, which is vital to support the
"We must use all our assets and skills to the best effect, avoid duplication, share expertise, learn from our experiences and tune-up our ways of working," Senior UN System Coordinator for Avian and Human Influenza David Nabarro said. "We must focus on support for existing country mechanisms and provide integrated global joint plans, programmes and monitoring."
The meeting discussed financing needs for countries in the short-, medium- and long-term. According to an analysis presented by the World Bank, the needs of affected countries could reach $1 billion over the next three years. The overall figure would be substantially higher, since this does not include financing for human or animal vaccine development, for antiviral medicines or for compensating farmers for loss of income due to animals which have been culled.
"Many countries where the disease is endemic have already taken action but they are overwhelmed by the situation and require urgent assistance," UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Assistant Director-General Louise Fresco said. "Fighting the disease in animals is key to our success in limiting the threat of a human pandemic."
The meeting supported an urgent resource request for $35 million to fund high-priority actions by WHO, FAO, and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) over the next six months. Additionally, surveillance, control and preparedness work in countries requires urgent funding.
"Time is of the essence," Margaret Chan, Representative of the WHO Director-General for Pandemic Influenza, said. "We must act now if we are to have the maximum possible opportunity to contain a pandemic."
"The minute there are more regions or countries with animal outbreaks or human-to-human transmission, the funding needs will increase hugely," the Vice-President of the World Bank for Operations and Head of the Bank's Avian Flu Task force, James Adams, said. "Based on our work here in Geneva over the past three days, we now have a strong business plan to take to the donors' financial conference in Beijing in mid-January."