14 April 2010
Press Conference

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

Press Conference on Upcoming Ministerial Conference

 

on Animal and Pandemic Influenza

 


Following extraordinary intergovernmental cooperation in containing the human and animal influenza threats of the past several years, the focus was now on maintaining momentum even as such threats dropped from the news, the Senior United Nations System Influenza Coordinator said today.


“We just cannot let down our guard”, David Nabarro said, briefing correspondents at Headquarters on the upcoming International Ministerial Conference on Animal and Pandemic Influenza that was planned for Hanoi, Viet Nam, from 19 to 21 April.


The main document to be finalized at that Conference will be the Annual Global Progress Report on Animal and Pandemic Influenza, this year subtitled:  “A framework for sustaining momentum”, he said.


The Conference will bring together senior delegates from over 80 countries to take stock of the current status of threats and preparedness for influenza and other highly infectious diseases and discuss preparations for the ever-present possibility of devastating pandemics. 


He said that avian influenza, or the H5N1 virus, no longer made the front pages because, since 2005, Governments and the national and international health and agricultural sectors had undertaken intensive cooperation to control it.


Because of those efforts the number of countries that had been affected by H5N1 avian flu had decreased from 60 at the peak in 2006 to only five -- China, Viet Nam, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Egypt, he said.


In addition, he said that since April of 2009, the H1N1 virus had dominated the news and continued to be major a major cause of illness around the world, particularly among certain vulnerable groups.


At the Conference, he said, participants would take stock of lessons learned from the response to not only the H1N1 and H5N1 threats, but also from infectious diseases such as SARS, Ebola and HIV/AIDs to determine whether the international community was prepared for diseases that jump from animals to humans. 


In that effort, the linkages between those who look after human health and animal health had to be regularized and the mechanisms set up for particular threats had to be normalized into the routine work of disaster preparedness through what was being called the One Health Approach.


Asked how China and Turkey were doing in setting up systems to control avian flu, he said that he had visited the former country just two weeks ago and was impressed by the candour with which officials and experts there shared information on programmes to reduce risk and decrease reliance on vaccination in favour of better methods of poultry rearing and transport.


In addition, he said that the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) was encouraged to travel anywhere in China to check on the issue and there was evidence of good joint work between the health and agricultural sector.  “There really has been real progress in that country, both on the strategy and its implementation.”


Similarly, he said he was pleased with the way that the Turkish Government had been working to contain H5N1, including its communication with the general public about the topic.  The situation had been quite difficult there, given that the outbreaks were in poor, rural communities during cold weather.


In regard to allegations that the World Health Organization (WHO) “beefed up” the scare of the H1N1 virus because of connections with pharmaceutical companies, who had also set up lobbying groups, he replied that last year’s outbreak was fraught with extreme uncertainties and could have, with less luck, been severe with high death rates.  “It would have been an absolutely awful situation,” he said.


The relatively mild, though widespread, illness that resulted was a relief, he said, but H1N1 was still spreading and could still turn bad.  In fact, for certain African communities and for young people and pregnant women in the United States and elsewhere, “this has been a nasty pandemic”, he said.  WHO did what was necessary, he maintained.


He could not speak for WHO on the conflict-of-interest allegations, but noted that the agency was interested in conducting an open and in-depth investigation of the handling of the H1N1 threat.  There was much to learn in any case.


From his own experience working at WHO, he said that it was always important to be on guard for unfair commercial practices that brought about results that were not in the public interest.  It was crucial in the public health sector, however, to work with pharmaceutical companies to get them involved in new markets in developing countries and to encourage them to take risks they would not normally take.


In the case of emerging pandemics, he said, WHO was dependent on dialogue with the pharmaceutical industry early on, because of the need to develop, produce and distribute vaccines. 


In regard to any backlash on the internet and elsewhere in public discourse that might have resulted from the H1N1 pandemic warnings, Dr. Nabarro said that it was important for the public health sector to come to terms with the fact that the public no longer takes warnings from experts as truth from on high. 


It was, in fact, valuable to have debate and dialogue around public health, he said.  That was why better communication would be an important part of the strategies developed to contain pandemics in the future.


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For information media • not an official record