Nations take stock of flu pandemic plans

A chicken farmer in Africa where there are fears of a large bird flu outbreak Keystone

Preparations for a pandemic of a human form of bird flu are to take centre stage at the 59th World Health Assembly in Geneva this week.

This content was published on May 22, 2006 - 14:21

Monday's opening, however, was overshadowed by the death of World Health Organization director-general Lee Jong-wook, who spearheaded the body's fight against bird flu.

According to Swiss health officials, a lack of resources and transparency in some developing countries means there is still much work to be done to prepare for a pandemic.

Last week the Federal Health Office reported that preparations in Switzerland were "very well advanced", but the same is not true of all 192 WHO member states.

"Preparations in industrialised countries are much further advanced than in some developing countries. Unfortunately resources matter in the preparation for a pandemic," Gaudenz Silberschmidt, head of international affairs at the Federal Health Office, told swissinfo.

"Nevertheless there are several developing countries doing a very good job in combating avian flu and in preparing for a possible pandemic."

Speaking ahead of the six-day session, Silberschmidt noted that several countries, including China and Vietnam, had made great strides in terms of transparency and communication. But he said several countries were still lagging behind, though he declined to name names.

"There has been great progress but a lot remains to be done, and the lack of resources in developing countries is important," said Silberschmidt.

"Understandably, a country that has difficulty dealing with its current health problems is going to find it hard to argue for investment in a health risk, however significant it may be.

"Nevertheless we have to convince them that there is also a need for investment in pandemic preparedness."

Health threats

Global preparedness for a pandemic is expected to be reinforced during the session through the early introduction of a revised set of rules for dealing with global health threats.

Updated International Health Regulations were approved by member states at last year's World Health Assembly and are due to come into force in June next year.

But member states will vote on a resolution – supported by Switzerland – for provisions relevant to bird flu or a potential pandemic to become active on a voluntary basis immediately.

Countries will also address how to put into practice a set of 60 recommendations, drawn up by an independent commission, to ensure poor people in developing countries have access to existing and new drugs while still protecting intellectual property rights.

"There has been some progress in this area and several drugs, for example for malaria and HIV, have seen large drops in price over the past few years. There are also major public/private partnerships doing important research," said Silberschmidt.

"But it will take a long time to move significantly on these very complex questions."

Another issue to be discussed this week is that of the migration of health-care staff, not just from developing to industrialised nations, but also between developing countries and between industrialised countries.

The Swiss have been supporting collaboration between the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Geneva-based WHO to find out how to respond to these migratory flows.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont in Geneva

In brief

Swiss health officials said last week that preparations for dealing with a deadly flu outbreak were well advanced and that an updated national pandemic plan would be published in June.

Switzerland has sufficient stocks of the anti-viral drug Tamiflu to treat 25% of the population. The virus was first confirmed in Switzerland in February. Since then there have been 32 cases of the deadly variant H5N1 among wild birds – the last on March 31.

Three weeks ago the Swiss authorities lifted a two-and-a-half-month ban on keeping poultry outdoors due to the reduced risk of bird flu.

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Key facts

The Geneva-based WHO's five-point strategy for coping with the pandemic threat:
Reduce opportunities for human infection.
Strengthen the early warning system.
Contain or delay spread of disease at the source.
Prepare for a pandemic.
Strengthen research and development including on vaccines.

According to latest WHO figures, there have been 217 human cases of bird flu, including 123 deaths.

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