Press Conference by Senior UN System Coordinator for Avian and Human Influenza

4 May 2009

Press Conference by Senior UN System Coordinator for Avian and Human Influenza

4 May 2009
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


The United Nations was well equipped to tackle an Influenza A (H1N1) pandemic through up-to-date preparedness plans in its country offices, funds, programmes, peacekeeping missions and other parts of the Organization, David Nabarro, Senior United Nations System Coordinator for Avian and Human Influenza, said at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon.

The plans included a possible partial closure of United Nations operations, if necessary, but officials were still discussing whether to cancel tours for schoolchildren and other visitors to Headquarters, he said.  “It’s during the last two weeks that we’ve actually said to people, ‘Get out your preparedness plans and just check that they are still valid; make sure that the assumptions you made are still correct; make sure you’ve got yourself up to date; talk with your local and national authorities to see that you are well positioned to be able to assist them and make sure that if this influenza H1N1 outbreak turns into a pandemic, even if it’s a relatively mild pandemic, that you are ready to support the Government, to support the institutions, to keep your essential services going and to keep your staff as safe and as healthy as possible’.”

He said that a committee created by Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro had recently reviewed the Organization’s plans, many of which had resulted from its efforts since the 2005 outbreak of the H1N5 avian influenza -– or “bird flu” -- to form an action plan for a possible future pandemic.  Those efforts had been carried out in collaboration with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), business groups, non-governmental organizations, federal regulators, tourism operators, airport managers, and bodies concerned with humanitarian relief, food and agriculture.

The Organization’s crisis operations group and senior emergency policy team had tested continuity plans twice in New York and once in Geneva in the last three years to see if any aspects needed changing, he said.  Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Margaret Chan had addressed the General Assembly on the matter earlier today, and they would work with Governments and businesses during the upcoming World Health Assembly in Geneva to ensure the global community was dealing effectively with the problem.

Public awareness about the H1N1 virus was crucial to prevent its spread, he emphasized.  The WHO, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and other bodies were informing the public and other professionals through ad campaigns, leaflets, web tools and word of mouth, but public outreach was still difficult in many areas.  “We have learned that we have to sometimes be repetitive almost in a rather boring way with some key message, for example, about personal hygiene.”  Despite repeated warnings, many people still failed to wash their hands frequently, and to refrain from unnecessary handshaking and kissing.

Mr. Nabarro refuted a correspondent’s claim that the WHO was not adequately informing the press about the virus in a timely way.  “I’ve been amazed and really positive -– straight to you -- about the way in which WHO has done this.  It’s exactly along the lines of what they had prepared for and what we’d all prepared for.  Every day, at a regular time, they do their formal updating of what has happened with factual science-based information and nothing else.  They try to use the same panel of speakers so that we don’t get any problems with multiple speakers, and they do it in a consistent and regular way.”

Regarding his previous “apocalyptic predictions” about avian influenza and his forecast concerning the HIN1 virus, he said he did not know how the H1N1 or the avian influenza -- which continued to circulate among poultry and was not under control in several countries -– would evolve, but both had the capacity to cause mild or severe pandemics.  “Because of this, we need to be prepared and ready.”

The uncertain nature of pandemic work, and its potential serious impact, prompted public health professionals to make broad-based decisions, he continued, before declining to comment on whether any United Nations staff members were infected with the HIN1 virus.

The Director of the United Nations Medical Services was responsible for staff health, he said, adding, when pressed on the matter, that he would discuss it with the Secretary-General.  While the Organization had not imposed travel restrictions on staff, it was providing medical guidance and updates on internal websites.  The Deputy Secretary-General had addressed staff concerns on Friday during a town hall staff meeting at Headquarters.

Regarding the status of the draft preparedness plan developed in 2006 by Imelda Henkin, then Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Coordinator for the United Nations System in New York, he said the plan was guiding the Organization’s current efforts, and a Business Continuity Management Unit had been formed to oversee it.

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