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Homeland Security

PRESS CONFERENCE ON AVIAN FLU

Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

3 November 2005

For many countries, preparing for Avian influenza and for an influenza pandemic was a major challenge, for which they were seeking help, not only financially but also in expertise, David Nabarro, Senior United Nations System Coordinator for Avian and Human Influenza, told correspondents this afternoon at a Headquarters press conference.

The press conference took place in the wake of this morning’s meeting of the Economic and Social Council, during which the required international response to the current situation and the potential threat of an Avian flu pandemic were examined. Louise Fresco, Assistant Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and David Heymann, Assistant Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), also participated.

Answering correspondents’ questions, Mr. Nabarro said a meeting next week in Geneva, co-hosted by WHO, FAO, the World Bank and the World Organization of Animal Health, would give a clearer assessment than before of the needs of countries and the aggregated needs of the world for what needed to be done to improve the veterinary and health infrastructures. He could not say how many resources would be available, but there were indications that resources could be mobilized. However, resources, particularly for veterinary service development, were needed very soon.

He said the recent $7 billion proposal by the President of the United States, George W. Bush, focused mainly on domestic plans, but he had been assured that there was a significant amount available for international support. The first and most significant support to his own coordination efforts had come from the United States, which was an indication of that country’s recognition of and support for international cooperation.

The meeting in Geneva was an opportunity for taking stock, establishing needs and work on financing requirements, he said. If a consensus could be established on the needs, the meeting’s co-sponsors would then start working on an event to mobilize resources.

Ms. Fresco expressed the hope that the Geneva meeting would establish priorities at national and regional levels. The needs for each country were different, she said, dependent on the density of human and poultry populations. Financial mechanisms were also important, as action was needed now. There was now, before the bird migration season would start in the spring, a narrow window of opportunity to act. As for human influenza, prioritization and national preparedness plans were also important, as was risk awareness. The SARS epidemic had shown that the potential effect on trade and diplomatic relations could be very serious.

Asked about vaccine development, Mr. Heymann said the problem today lay in poultry. The solution to Avian flu was to give the virus less and less opportunity to infect humans. Each year, there was a human influenza epidemic, for which there was a maximum production capacity of 300 million doses. There was also research into development for H5N1 vaccine.

Ms. Fresco added that a vaccine for chickens was available, but that it was difficult to administer, especially in “backyard” chickens. The vaccine worked best in places where chicken farming was commercialized, such as in the Republic of Korea and Thailand. In Indonesia, however, there were some
1 billion “backyard” chickens, which were difficult to reach. The vaccine, moreover, required cold storage. It would be better to find a vaccine that could be administered more easily, for instance, through water or food.

There was enough vaccine available, she continued, but with a world population of 18 billion poultry, surveillance now was important, as was immediate destruction of infected birds. The strategy was to create buffer zones around place where poultry was infected and to keep those places isolated. Then, vaccination could be administered in specific places.

Asked what the impact would be on human lives if the Avian flu was passed on to humans, Mr. Heymann said that the Avian flu could pass from birds to humans, but not from humans to humans. Once the virus became pandemic, however, no one could estimate the risk of a development towards human to human transfer. In that case, nobody could predict either if the virus would be more virulent or less, or what the rate of transfer would be. There had been no cases of human-to-human transfer. Ms. Fresco added that there also had been no cases of transfer from wild birds to humans.

Mr. Navarro said, in that regard, that the number of 150 million victims he had given earlier was not his personal estimate, but the estimate of somebody else in the United Nations system. Since he had been quoted so often, even on the Comedy Channel, he would not “do” any more numbers.

According to a rough estimate, prevention of a pandemic would cost around $425 million, Ms. Fresco answered another question. The longer one waited, the higher the costs. However, the costs of prevention were “peanuts” compared to the cost of eliminating entire poultry sectors. Other cost factors, such as damage to trade relations and the cost of restocking poultry industries, could not be estimated. The costs would be highest for poor producers and poor countries.

Asked about lessons learned from the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic, Mr. Heymann said that, although Avian flu and SARS were quite different, the main lesson was that, during the SARS outbreak, scientists and countries worldwide had been willing to work together and share information. That had been a major accomplishment, after what had happened at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. He added, however, that in the case of SARS, the world had been lucky that the disease had not spread into Africa.

Ms. Fresco said that, although China had been criticized, the country had shown a great willingness to share data and would actively participate in the Geneva meeting. As it played a key role in the problem of Avian flu, it had gathered a lot of experience and was willing to share that experience.

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For information media • not an official record



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