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Homeland Security

08 November 2005

World Needs Clear Response to Pandemic Flu, U.S. Official Says

Global flu plan must move from general to specific, says delegation head

The global health community must move beyond generalized planning, and draw up concrete plans for action when an influenza strain emerges that has the potential to set off a pandemic, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Public Health Emergency Preparedness Stewart Simonson.

Simonson made the statement November 8 as head of the U.S. delegation to an international meeting on bird flu preparedness in Geneva.  On November 2, the United States announced a detailed plan that provides guidance to health care providers and lawmakers at all levels on how to respond should flu become rampant. (See related article.)

Simonson called on the World Health Organization (WHO) to convene a group of experts to “define a protocol for a rapid response to the emergence of a pandemic strain.” Simonson suggests the group also would propose ways to tighten up the global disease surveillance system, which is the first line of defense against pandemic.

WHO, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) convened the meeting in response to growing concerns about widespread outbreaks of avian influenza in Asia, and most recently in Europe.  Health officials warn that conditions are right for a deadly flu strain to become contagious among humans, leading to perhaps millions of deaths, and causing widespread social and economic upheaval.  A virulent strain of bird flu in Asia has killed more than 150 million birds and more than 60 people. 

For more information on U.S. and international efforts to combat avian influenza, see Bird Flu/Avian Influenza.

The text of the Simonson statement follows:

(begin text)

Improving Influenza Surveillance and
Developing a Rapid Response Plan for Pandemic Influenza

Statement by Stewart Simonson
Assistant Secretary for Public Health Emergency Preparedness
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Statement to the Meeting on Avian Influenza
WHO Headquarters
Geneva, Switzerland
November 8, 2005

Pandemic disease – whether caused by H5N1 influenza or some other microbe – is a threat to all countries, not just those in Asia, and to all economies, not just the rich or poor. We must take decisive action to respond to that threat now.

I want to focus my remarks today on one specific aspect of preparedness: the early recognition and rapid response to the emergence of a pandemic strain. We believe that the international community must take immediate steps to close the gaps in influenza surveillance (especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America) and reach consensus on what actions will be taken and by whom to contain a pandemic strain when it emerges.

Specifically, in order to do this we must address the following questions:

What data and facts on the ground will define sustained human-to-human transmission?

What is the concept of operations for the WHO stockpile for antiviral drugs and other materiel?

What other assets will be deployed to the outbreak site, how, and by whom?

How will these assets be used, and by whom?

What technical expertise will be needed, who will provide it, and how soon?

Should international response personnel be pre-identified and made ready for immediate employment? Would it be possible for the governments of affected and at-risk nations to grant flexible, multi-entry visas to these pre-selected experts?

What interventions – pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical – will be employed, and under what conditions?

We must go beyond generalized planning and well-intentioned expressions of cooperation. Now is the time to speak and act with specificity. We therefore propose that the WHO immediately convene a small group of experts to draft a plan to close the gaps in influenza surveillance and to define a protocol for a rapid response to the emergence of a pandemic strain. This plan should be completed in time for consideration by the WHO Executive Board in January.

Finally, with the threat of a pandemic looming, we believe it important that countries voluntarily comply now with the relevant provisions of the recently revised WHO International Health Regulations in advance of their formal entry into force in 2007. Among other things and of particular importance in the context of pandemic influenza, the regulations stress the importance of early reporting of any potential public health emergency of international concern.

(end text)

(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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