29 September 2005


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


The newly appointed Senior United Nations System Coordinator for Avian and Human Influenza unveiled today a three-pronged global programme to curb the potentially deadly impact if the flu virus now killing millions of birds mutated and crossed into the human population.

David Nabarro, one of the most senior public health experts in the World Health Organization (WHO), said at a press conference that United Nations organizations were working with officials around the world to raise awareness and prepare for any potential human influenza pandemic.  While it was not possible to predict that the avian flu virus, which had swept through Asia and decimated poultry stocks, would definitely mutate and cross over into humans, the potential threat of a flu epidemic was serious.

“I am certain that there will be another influenza pandemic sometime”, he said in response to a question about the likelihood of an epidemic.  Health experts agreed that the long period of time since the last serious flu epidemic, which had killed tens of millions of people in 1918-1919, meant the world was overdue for another epidemic.  “In the natural history of these things, I am almost certain that there will be another pandemic soon.”

He said the likelihood of the bird flu virus jumping into the human population was generally thought by health officials to be high.  “I’m not sure whether ‘almost certain’ is the impression I’d like to have conveyed to you, but it does seem very likely and it would be extremely wrong for me as a public health person to be ignoring this threat.”  Dr. Nabarro joined WHO in 1999 and was appointed Executive Director of Sustainable Development and Health Environments in July 2002.  He was also a senior policy adviser to the Director-General.

He said that the number of deaths that would result from any pandemic would depend on where the outbreak occurred, the speed with which health and Government officials discovered the outbreak, the response initiatives and the quality of these initiatives.  Countries with limited health-care systems that could not care for many ill people and that did not openly transfer information from the local to the national levels would affect the final number of deaths.  “I’m not, at the moment, at liberty to give you a prediction on numbers, but I just want to stress, that, let’s say, the range of deaths could be anything from 5 to 150 million.”

The work done on prevention and preparedness over the next few months would make the difference between, for example, whether the next pandemic led in the direction of 150 million or in the direction of 5 million”, he said, adding, “Our effectiveness will be directly measured in lives saved and the consequences for the world.”  The coordinated United Nations system-wide effort against a flu epidemic would tap into the technical guidance provided through the Organization’s specialized agencies responsible for animal and human health –- WHO and the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).  That effort would also envelop the World Bank; the World Organization for Animal Health, an intergovernmental agency that was not part of the United Nations system; development banks; and non-governmental organizations such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.  The United Nations effort would also work with national, regional and local Government officials, who would play a key part in the effort.

He said that the first pillar of the programme would focus on preventative efforts to control the spread of avian flu.  That effort would involve Government officials at all levels, farmers and corporations involved in chicken farming, as well as communities where people lived in close proximity to their poultry.  The second pillar would focus on the preparedness of officials, agencies and communities in case the avian flu virus were to cross over into humans.  “There would be a short interval between discovery and the time when the pandemic starts.  It would be a matter of weeks.”  The third pillar would focus on the responses of the United Nations system and other agencies and health officials.  Officials wanted to minimize the effect of a pandemic on people’s health, as well as on trade, travel and the economy.

In response to a question, he said that the United Nations Coordination Office, officially created on Wednesday, would operate out of New York, tapping into the expertise of United Nations personnel throughout the system, with an initial budget of $2 million.  A meeting organized by WHO, FAO, the World Bank and other agencies would be held on 7 November in Geneva.  It would look at financing mechanisms and other topics to help develop the necessary initiative.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.