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Homeland Security


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

11 January 2006

With most countries aware of the seriousness of the situation, an upcoming International Pledging Conference on Avian and Human Influenza -- to be held in Beijing on 17-18 January -- would seek to move from assessing the needs to action at country and international levels, David Nabarro, United Nations System Avian Influenza Coordinator told correspondents at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon. During this event the international community will be invited to pledge financial support and discuss the establishment of fund management and coordination mechanisms.

Building on the Geneva conference of November 2005, which had identified the priorities for what needed to be done to better address the pandemic, the meeting next week would aim at setting up a financing framework for donors to assist the countries in need to respond to the challenges posed by avian influenza. The event would be co-hosted by the Government of China, the European Commission and the World Bank. Over 90 countries have been invited, as well as a number of organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Participants of the Conference will also be reflecting on the key roles to be played by the Red Cross and non-governmental organizations.

Regarding the financial requirements in connection with the disease, he said that based on the estimates by the World Bank and others, they could be anticipated at about $1.4 billion. Those were not definitive figures. “I am not for a minute suggesting that the amounts of money we are talking about at the Beijing meeting are all that is going to be needed, but they are what’s required to help countries put in place their influenza programmes and to get much better and effective control”, he added. Funds would also be required for international organizations.

Since his past update on the situation (see press conference summary of 3 November), things had “got moving”, he said. Heads of State from all over the world had called on their officials to massively scale up their response to avian influenza and get ready for a possible pandemic and its impact, not just on health, but also on social and economic areas. The quality of the work that had been done was very high. For instance, Viet Nam had initiated a high-quality bird immunization programme and held at least two exercises to test its preparedness for the pandemic. Progress had also been made in Indonesia, and big steps had been taken in China, both on the agricultural and public health side.

However, for “each little bit of progress that’s made, you would discover that there is more to be done”, he added, warning against complacency. In fact, the situation was still quite serious, and human cases of bird flu were being reported at regular intervals now. “The difficulty for everybody is that when we talk about raising the political profile and getting broader involvement in an issue, people say, ‘Well is that actually making any difference on the ground?’” he said. To some extent, increased work in some countries was showing “just how much more we’ve got to do to get the avian influenza under tighter control”.

Regarding the spread of the disease, he said that it seemed likely that the highly pathogenic virus causing the bird flu was moving westwards with migrating wild fowl –- into southern Siberia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, the Crimean peninsula, Romania and now Turkey. Having been introduced, the virus then circulated among poultry and eventually crossed into the human community. Unfortunately, there had been quite a number of cases in Turkey in recent weeks.

Turning to the situation in that country, he praised the Government of Turkey for its response to the epidemic, saying that it was concerned about the issues it was facing and the extent to which people understood the situation. The peculiarity of the strain of the virus encountered in Turkey was that it was difficult to detect in the first instance, but the authorities had “got it right”. It had been confirmed by the European Commission and the WHO as H5N1. Unfortunately, some people had died, but when the next wave of cases came in, Turkey very quickly put in place the most up-to-date treatment available. The fatalities had not continued at the level seen in some of the Asian outbreaks.

Coincidentally, there had been a report from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden that suggested that in fact, the level of fatalities from the avian flu had been “slightly overestimated”, he added. Perhaps, more people got sick than reported and, therefore, a smaller proportion died.

The measures that needed to be taken in response to the disease included detection and confirmation of cases, culling of sick birds, restriction of movement in and around the areas involved, and mass communication campaigns to educate the general public. The people needed to be well informed about the dangers of touching, playing with and certainly eating diseased, dying or dead birds. Some very basic advice related to hygiene, separation of humans and birds and the need to wash hands.

To a question regarding the transmission of the virus in Turkey, he said that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission there. In general, there was no information available to date that would allow the scientists to predict with any clarity whether the H5N1 would be the virus that would cause the next pandemic, or whether the mutation that would allow sustainable human-to-human transmission would happen “sooner, rather than later”.

Responding to several questions regarding the implications of the situation in Turkey for neighbouring countries, Dr. Nabarro said that the countries in close proximity to Turkey were getting concerned. Some of them -- with United Nations participation -- had initiated intense action to prepare for possible spread of the virus. In that connection, Dr. Nabarro stressed the need to ensure rapid veterinary response to provide for early detection, confirmation and handling of possible cases. It was important to prepare laboratory services and avoid delays in sending culling teams out. Education was needed to make sure people knew “what to do if birds started dying in their villages”.

As for the decisions regarding poultry import bans, he said that they should be based on science. Such measures could have serious consequences for consumer confidence, but the “vast majority of poultry that we buy are going to be totally safe to eat”, particularly if the meat was properly cooked. For the time being, there were reductions in the imports of poultry from Turkey, but one should not stop eating chicken altogether.

To a question regarding poultry vaccination, he said it was recommended where the virus was endemic. However, with vaccinated birds still able to be carriers, vigilance and prompt action were preferable as a first response.

Addressing the question regarding a projection that half of all employees would stop coming to work should a pandemic start, Dr. Nabarro said that it was a big issue for the United Nations. One was probably less likely to be exposed if he or she stayed home, and that should be taken into account in planning for continuity of vital services.

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For information media • not an official record

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