29 September 2005 Facing dire warnings of an impending global pandemic of avian influenza, Secretary-General Kofi Annan today announced the appointment of a United Nations system coordinator for the virus, which is presently decimating poultry stocks in Asia and could cross over to humans to deadly effect.
"We expect the next great influenza pandemic to come at any time now," David Nabarro, a senior public health expert in the UN World Health Organization (WHO), told a news briefing, recalling that the 1918 flu pandemic had killed over 40 million people.
Subsequent epidemics in 1957 and 1968 caused fewer deaths but greater social disruption, he told reporters at UN Headquarters.
WHO has warned that the outbreaks of the highly-pathogenic avian flu virus known as H5N1 could mutate into a form which spreads easily from person to person. As humans would have no natural immunity, such a new virus could cause widespread death, illness, as well as social and economic disruption.
Dr. Nabarro will be responsible for ensuring that the UN system makes an effective and coordinated contribution to the global effort to control the illness, also known as bird flu, a spokesman for Mr. Annan said today.
"He will also ensure that the UN system supports effective local, national, regional and global preparations for a potential human influenza pandemic – so as to reduce the human toll, as well as the economic and social disruption, that this pandemic could cause," the spokesman added.
At the press conference, Dr. Nabarro said the UN had already been working with governments, private organizations and scientists around the world, preparing to minimize the toll for a potential human epidemic. In particular, beside WHO, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) had been working to control the spread of the flu among poultry.
In the past two weeks, the entire UN system had been brought in to step up efforts, through a "virtual network" that involves the technical specialties of each organization.
Time is critical in the effort to contain the disease, he said, because there will only a window of a few weeks between the time the human flu is detected and the point where it becomes an epidemic. An early warning system to detect the mutated flu, a means of treating the flu, and strategies for response are all critical, he said.
"Prevention, preparedness, response: that's what we've all got to do," he said.