UN studies use of space technology in fight against the spread of bird flu

1 August 2007 – The United Nations is taking steps to promote the application of space technology to help Asian-Pacific countries fight bird flu, drawing on its potential as part of an integrated early-warning system to track the virus’s path in a region that has suffered by far the largest share of both human and avian infections in the world.

About 60 experts from nearly 20 countries are participating in a three-day meeting opening today in Bangkok, hosted by the Information, Communication and Space Technology Division of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), to examine how the technology can help to track the flight patterns of migratory birds, believed to have played a role in spreading the H5N1 virus.

Jointly organized with the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs, the China National Space Administration and the Geo-informatics and Space Technology Development Agency of Thailand, the meeting will look at several potential uses of space-based technologies, such as geographic information systems, remote sensing and the Global Positioning System (GPS). These could, for example, help to monitor and determine the migratory routes of wild birds.

To make an avian influenza monitoring and early warning system effective, a mechanism needs to be set up to systematically collect and share information and participants will discuss ways for countries to cooperate in using space technology, not only to track bird flu but also other infectious diseases, such as malaria and schistosomiasis, a highly debilitating parasitic illness that affects some 200 million people worldwide.

Of the 319 human cases and 192 deaths so far, 256 and 165 respectively have been in the Asia-Pacific region. Experts fear the virus could cause a deadly worldwide pandemic if it mutated into a form more easily transmissible between humans, rather than from birds to people.

For that reason, the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) recently held its second regional Avian and Human Influenza Simulation in Jakarta, Indonesia, with the support of the Government and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to model the impact of an evolving pandemic in the Asia Pacific region.

The 70 participants from more than 15 countries and several UN agencies replicated the roles of government departments, the tourism industry, international bodies and other stakeholders, including tourists themselves. It followed a similar exercise held in Paris in March, which focused on Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

With an estimated 10 million people travelling abroad at any given time and many more within their own countries, UNWTO keeps a close watch on health risks generally and bird flu specifically. While there has been no change in the level of alerts issued by the UN World Health Organization (WHO), the Tourism sector is already taking action to prepare effectively for the potential dangers.

The simulation helped to identify possible gaps in response systems and to understand the pressures and dynamics in a real-world situation. It underscored the need for good planning, clear communications, a fully prepared and trained work force, and unambiguous procedures for customer and workplace safety.

“The Avian Flu threat does not diminish and like other sectors of the economy tourism needs to strengthen its defences,” UNWTO Assistant Secretary-General Geoffrey Lipman said. “Every time we hold an awareness-building exercise of this nature we increase preparedness and strengthen our coordination mechanisms.”

After conducting its next simulation exercise in Mexico from 19-20 September for the Americas, UNWTO will have trained together with governments and international agencies around the world. This will provide a solid base for intensified national simulations in 2008.

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