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No room for complacency about bird flu - experts

Many Egyptians keep and raise domestic poultry, making it difficult to eradicate bird flu completely, the government says. Martina Fuchs/IRIN

Some success has been achieved in reducing avian influenza outbreaks in poultry and humans, but the world must still be prepared to tackle an influenza pandemic, experts at an international conference in Egypt have said.

“Things are a lot better now than they were when we started this work in 2005 but they are not good enough. We are still not sufficiently prepared to properly bring a pandemic under control quickly,” David Nabarro, senior UN system coordinator for avian and human influenza, told IRIN.

Nabarro said it was especially difficult to get government departments other than Health Ministries to work on a pandemic, and greater international cooperation was needed.

“We have seen very good progress in Egypt, Indonesia, Vietnam, and excellent progress in France, UK and Singapore… We want all countries to be ready but probably we need more time and we need to put some pressure on countries to give this priority attention,” he said.

The experts were attending the sixth International Ministerial Conference on Avian and Pandemic Influenza in Sharm El Sheikh.

Plans untested

Although most countries have put in place plans to deal with a possible outbreak of avian flu, these plans have not been properly tested, according to a 21 October report by the UN System Influenza Coordinator (UNSIC) and the World Bank.

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Of the 148 countries that have developed a national plan at the top executive level of government, only 53 percent have tested their plans in the past 12 months, and only 25 percent have tested their plans at national and local level, the report said.

“What we want to avoid is for countries to believe that just because they have written a plan, they are prepared. This is not true. Putting the plan [in place] is just the beginning of the job… you have to test your plan to make sure that your assumptions are right,” Nabarro said.

Experts said there was a need to continually revise and update the plans.

Poorest countries at risk

Three years ago people started to get excited about preparedness but the momentum has since slowed, Michael Mosselmans, director of the Pandemic Influenza Contingency (PIC) at the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told IRIN.

Photo: Shamsuddin Ahmed/IRIN
Although there has yet to be any confirmed cases of human infection, the Bangladeshi government has already taken a number of steps to mitigate that threat of bird flu
Mosselmans said middle income and poor countries lagged behind: “Poor countries like Congo, Sudan, Nepal, Mali and Burundi find it difficult to generate resources to make the right preparations because there are so many real problems they are dealing with, like conflicts, droughts and food security issues. They can’t create the incentives and resources to prepare for something that might happen one day, when they’ve got real problems happening now,” he said.

According to him, donors needed to step in to help.

“Middle income countries have managed to prepare for some aspects of the pandemic particularly around health services, veterinary services and communications but not in other aspects like public transportation, utility services and banking,” he said.

Since late 2003, some 385 human cases of avian flu have been recorded; over 245 people have died in 15 countries in Africa, Asia and Europe. In 2008, 36 cases and 28 deaths were registered, most of them in Indonesia.

The UN/World Bank report indicated that there had been fewer outbreaks of avian influenza in poultry in fewer countries, and fewer reported human cases of H5N1 infection than in the preceding two years.

A severe pandemic might claim the lives of over 70 million people, the World Bank estimates.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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