Nations to address flu pandemic fears

There are fears that the world is on the verge of a flu pandemic Keystone

Global preparations for dealing with a possible flu pandemic look set to dominate the 58th World Health Assembly, which got underway in Geneva on Monday.

This content was published on May 13, 2005 - 17:27

Switzerland has been actively involved in drawing up new international regulations for responding to deadly outbreaks, which are expected to be adopted by member countries.

The assembly, which is the decision-making body of the World Health Organization (WHO), is meeting over the next two weeks to discuss issues ranging from the destruction of smallpox virus stocks to progress on eradicating polio.

But it is fears that the world is on the verge of a flu pandemic that are likely to be foremost on the minds of delegates from 192 countries.

According to the WHO, recent outbreaks of avian influenza or "bird flu" in Asia have brought the world closer to a pandemic than at any time since 1968, the date of the last flu pandemic.

To combat the threat, member states have been revising the International Health Regulations, which date back to the 1960s and only address three diseases – plague, cholera and yellow fever.

They want these regulations to become the primary instrument for responding to and controlling any public-health emergency of international concern.

Top priority

Gaudenz Silberschmidt, head of international affairs at the Federal Health Office, said the Swiss had made the issue their number one priority for this year’s assembly.

"The regulations would define the international response which would be applied to situations like Sars, avian flu or the Marburg virus currently in Angola," Silberschmidt told swissinfo.

"It is a major step forward. You could call it the Kyoto protocol for health emergencies. There is general agreement that we need these regulations and we need them this year."

A separate resolution that the Swiss have been working on covers the specific threat of a flu pandemic, which the WHO has declared "may be imminent".

Experts say the strain of bird flu that has caused at least 49 deaths in Asia has yet to mutate into a form that would allow efficient human-to-human transmission.

Pandemic threat

But the WHO says no one can predict how the present situation will evolve, adding that the virus "has demonstrated considerable pandemic potential".

"History tells us that flu pandemics have occurred at irregular intervals. We cannot forecast time of onset, duration and severity of the next pandemic, however, it is possible that one could happen rather soon," said Silberschmidt.

He stressed that the number one priority was to ensure that countries were ready to respond. The expert said early detection of outbreaks caused by a flu virus with a pandemic potential would enable scientists to begin working on a vaccine and allow prevention and control mechanisms to be put in place quickly.

"In an early stage of a flu pandemic the approach to choose is to buy time. From the mutation of a virus into a dangerous virus, to the time when the virus spreads worldwide may take several months," he said.

Last month the Swiss government announced that it was drawing up emergency measures that would come into force in the event of a flu pandemic.

Bilateral talks

Switzerland will also be using the assembly to hold bilateral talks on health issues with a number of countries, including the Netherlands and New Zealand.

Swiss Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin is due to attend the assembly on Tuesday when he is expected to sign a bilateral accord on health issues with China.

It will allow the exchange of information and technical cooperation and covers four main areas: surveillance of infectious diseases, health legislation, traditional Chinese medicine and HIV/Aids.

"The importance of bilateral cooperation in the field of health is increasing and all countries realise that we have to learn from each other. China is a major player in any political and technical field that you speak about," said Silberschmidt.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont

In brief

The alarm bells started ringing over a possible flu pandemic in January 2004 when Thailand and Vietnam reported their first human cases of avian influenza, otherwise known as "bird flu".

The WHO says that as of mid-March this year the virus – H5N1 – has caused 74 confirmed human cases, of which 49 were fatal.

The WHO has warned that it is seeing parallels with the lead-up to the 1918 flu pandemic which killed up to 40 million people, mainly aged between 15-35.

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