21 October 2008
Press Conference

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


Although most countries were planning for a possible avian influenza pandemic, many response strategies had not been adequately tested and might be invalid once the next pandemic actually started, Dr. David Nabarro, United Nations System Influenza Coordinator, told correspondents today.

Introducing the “Fourth Global Progress Report on Responses to Avian Influenza and State of Pandemic Readiness” at a Headquarters press conference, Dr. Nabarro said the continuing lack of preparedness remained a cause for concern, especially since the report came on the heels of a World Bank study released over the weekend that suggested that the economic cost of a worldwide influenza pandemic could top $3 trillion.  That would be equivalent to a global loss in gross domestic product of nearly 5 per cent.

“When planning for an extraordinary concern like an influenza pandemic, it’s not enough just to have written a plan and have everybody signing off on it,” Dr. Nabarro said.  “You also have to check it, test it and make sure that it works, and then revise [it] on the basis of assimilation”.

Of the 148 countries that provided data for the report –- which was produced jointly by the United Nations and the World Bank –- 53 per cent said they had tested their plans in the last 12 months, but only one-quarter had done so at all levels of Government.  Furthermore, only 38 per cent had incorporated lessons learned from testing the plans into revising them, Dr. Nabarro said.

He added that the threat of an influenza pandemic was still the same as it was three or four years ago.  Although nations were concentrating on one particular “bird flu” virus that might be the cause of the next influenza, any influenza virus could cause a pandemic, and no one could say for certain when the next pandemic would come, where it would start, or how severe it might be.  Preparedness should be done by and among Governments, and should engage the private sector, civil society, the media and other international bodies.

Highlighting other sections of the report, he said the world had been battling “bird flu” caused by the highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza type A virus for the last five years.  That was because it had caused major problems in poultry systems, and could possibly mutate into a form easily and rapidly transmissible between humans.  Sustained transmission of the virus among humans, however, had not yet occurred, although there had been several hundred sporadic human cases.

No countries had reported that their poultry were newly infected by the H5N1 avian influenza virus in the first nine months of 2008, as compared with four in the same period last year.  Only 20 countries that had previously reported infections experienced outbreaks between January and September 2008, down from 25 in the corresponding 2007 period.  Dr. Nabarro expressed concern with the situation in Nigeria –- which had recently announced its first H5N1 outbreak in nearly 10 months –- and also in nearby Togo, which also had a recent outbreak.

Dr. Nabarro was speaking in advance of an international ministerial conference on avian and pandemic influenza, scheduled to take place in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, from 24 to 26 October.  That conference –- the sixth in a series -- is to be hosted by the Government of Egypt and co-hosted by the International Partnership on Avian and Pandemic Influenza, which was launched by the United States Government in September 2005, as well as by the European Commission.  Dr. Nabarro said more than 60 ministers of health and agriculture from both developed and developing countries were expected to attend the conference.

Asked what the United Nations system thought about an alleged United States policy not to export vaccines developed in that country for bird flu and other diseases to Cuba, Iran, North Korea or the Sudan, Dr. Nabarro said there were some key principles that had to be adopted in dealing with global threats, including avian influenza or a possible human pandemic.  Countries must share information about diseases with each other, openly and promptly.

They must also be prepared to share –- working through the normal rules established by the international system and agreed to by countries -- samples of viruses that were taken from infected people or animals, so that they could be examined by scientists internationally, he continued.  There should also be equitable access for all nations and peoples to vaccines, medicines, and other requirements for ensuring their health. 

Asked by another correspondent if the United Nations system had conveyed that message to the United States Government, Dr. Nabarro said it was a regular part of dialogue with all Governments.  The United Nations did not actually go to individual Governments on the subject.  Moreover, the general principle of equitable access and benefit sharing was subjected to continued dialogue in the international fora of United Nations agencies.

Asked if countries had improved in terms of their level of transparency regarding national plans for a possible influenza pandemic, he said that since he had started his work in the autumn of 2005, there was much more openness among all the countries he worked with.  In China, for example, he had complete access to information from the central and provincial Government authorities in the country.  Countries had also become much more open on their pandemic preparedness planning.  He was somewhat concerned, however, that interactions among countries were sometimes a bit tense.

Questioned about a report that Hong Kong was blocking poultry from Germany, Dr. Nabarro said that issue was difficult.  Quite often, if there was either low pathogenic or high pathogenic avian influenza in a country, other countries would not import poultry from that country.  It was action taken by national authorities to protect consumers, and it was part of what occurred during trade.  He tried to encourage care and fair action in such instances, but he would not comment on whether it was a sound decision.

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For information media • not an official record