Preparedness key to tackling global flu pandemic, says top UN health official

20 November 2007 – The head of the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) has underlined the need to make full use of the resources available to prepare for a possible influenza pandemic, warning that no country will be left unaffected should an outbreak occur.

“Vulnerability is universal,” WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan said today at the opening in Geneva of the Intergovernmental Meeting on Pandemic Influenza Preparedness. “A pandemic will, by its very nature, reach every corner of the earth, and it will do so within a matter of months.”

Dr. Chan emphasized that this shared vulnerability calls for shared responsibility, and collective action to fulfil that responsibility. “In terms of the risk of disease, we really are all in the same boat,” she said.

That is why the international community has an obligation to use the advance warning it has been given to prepare for a possible influenza pandemic, which raises major issues for global public health, said the Director-General.

“Preparedness has moved forward on multiple fronts,” she stated. “Countries need to brace themselves for a situation where up to 25 per cent of the workforce may be ill at a given time. They have to brace themselves for a possible meltdown of basic municipal services and a slowdown of economic activity.

“And this situation will be occurring globally,” she added. “There will be no fortunate unaffected parts of the world.”

Among the issues the Geneva meeting will be looking at is access to benefits, in particular access to pandemic vaccines. “In terms of preparedness, access to vaccines is almost certainly the greatest concern in countries that lack their own manufacturing capacity,” Dr. Chan noted.

She expressed support for any effort that leads to greater and more equitable access to pandemic vaccines, calling them the “best protection against the risk that the next pandemic will negate or set back our hard-won achievements in health development.”

The meeting will also address the sharing of viruses for medical research, which Dr. Chan pointed out serves public health in ways that go beyond the development of pandemic vaccines, including by providing “the first clues, the first early warning, that the virus may be evolving in a dangerous way.”

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