World Not Prepared for Avian Flu Pandemic

MALAYSIA - Leading national and international health officials were warned that the world is far from being prepared for a flu pandemic.
calendar icon 24 June 2008
clock icon 5 minute read

The world is unprepared for a flu pandemic, health officials said at a conference in Malaysia, citing a lack of political commitment and funding and a vaccine to protect humans against bird flu, reports Bloomberg.

The report continues that without a vaccine against the deadly H5N1 strain, it will be impossible to protect billions of people who would be at risk should a pandemic start soon. This was the stark warning given by officials from the US, UK and World Health Organization (WHO) at the International Congress on Infectious Diseases in Kuala Lumpur.

"We are a long way from being fully prepared," Julie Gerberding, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told reporters last week.

"We do not have a vaccine that will provide universal protection, we do not have surveillance in every country, we do not have control of the virus in the animal reservoirs, and we have huge gaps in our basic understanding of influenza."

Geneva-based WHO reported at the meeting that bird flu has killed 243 of the 385 people it is known to have infected since late 2003. Most cases followed close contact with birds. Health officials are concerned the virus could mutate into a form capable of passing as easily between people as it does between birds.

Ms Gerberding stated that public attention to the threat of a flu pandemic peaked after the first human H5N1 infections in 2003, and has waned on perceptions the threat has eased.

Complacency is Biggest Threat

She suggested that the biggest threat to containing a pandemic is complacency stemming from confusion about whom to trust for information, misplaced confidence that a solution will be found or a belief that nothing can be done to stop an outbreak.

David Heymann, WHO's assistant director-general for communicable diseases said, "Certainly at higher levels in many governments, there is no longer the concern there was five years ago."

While many nations have developed pandemic plans and are stockpiling anti-viral drugs such as Roche's Tamiflu and GlaxoSmithKline's Relenza, "The world is not prepared as far as vaccines go," Mr Heymann told reporters.

Glaxo and Sanofi-Aventis told Bloomberg that they will contribute a combined 110 million doses of pre-pandemic vaccines to a WHO stockpile. However, product developed before a pandemic strain emerges may not be a good fit for the virus. Following the start of a pandemic, it may take six months to produce vaccines that better match the pathogenic strain.

Baxter International Inc. said this month that it may be able to produce a vaccine faster using a technique that grows the virus in cell colonies derived from African green monkey kidneys, instead of the traditional approach of cultivating it in chicken eggs.

Better Virus Monitoring in Birds

Juan Lubroth, head of infectious diseases in the animal health service at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said that tackling the virus more vigorously in birds five years ago may have prevented it spreading to the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

"In many nations, preparedness for human infections is not matched by H5N1 surveillance in birds," he said.

"If this is really an infectious disease that has a pandemic potential, then it should be higher up on the agenda. We're not seeing that," Mr Lubroth said in an interview.

The FAO's efforts to eliminate H5N1 from poultry are being hampered by poor surveillance systems in some countries and 'donor fatigue'," he added.

Warning over Delegation of Responsibility

At the conference, Sir Roy Anderson, newly appointed rector of Imperial College London alleged that pandemic plans in the US and UK that delegate responsibility from federal to local level are a 'disaster' because they lead to different plans in different places.

"You have got to have central government control of policy and apply it uniformly across all sectors," Sir Roy said in his presentation.

However, Ms Gerberding described Sir Roy's suggestion as 'completely unrealistic'.

In the Bloomberg report, she explained, "If a pandemic emerges, it's not going to be at the same stage in every community at the same time. There are going to be a lot of variabilities in how people respond and the decisions that are made."

View the Bloomberg story by clicking here.

Further Reading

- You can visit the Avian Flu page by clicking here.
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