WHO calls enhanced preparedness for SARS and avian influenza

The World Health Organization (WHO) has urged countries to put in place preventive measures and enhance preparedness ready for the possible re-emergence of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and avian influenza A (H5N1) in humans.

Addressing a WHO meeting in Shanghai, Dr Shigeru Omi, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific, noted that "many countries still do not have national pandemic preparedness plans essential to minimize the impact of the next pandemic."

Early detection and reporting of such events is crucial if the social and economic impact of these diseases is to be minimized, Dr Omi told WHO's regional governing body, the Regional Committee for the Western Pacific.

Said Dr Omi: "The lesson from SARS was that communicable diseases can spread very quickly from one country to another. International collaboration, including prompt and transparent information exchange, is critical to control their spread."

Four SARS incidents in the Western Pacific Region-three of them laboratory-associated-occurred after July 2003, when all human chains of SARS transmission had been declared successfully contained. The cases raised serious concerns about the possible future re-emergence of SARS.

Another emerging disease, avian influenza A(H5N1), hit at least nine countries in Asia in early 2004. The virus has the potential to jump from birds to humans. Most countries, however, lack comprehensive programmes to prevent animal-to-human transmission of zoonotic diseases. WHO also warned of the possibility of the virus acquiring the ability to transmit from human to human.

The recent outbreaks reported only a total of 39 human cases but the number of death was high, at 28. "The vast majority of people have no protective immunity to a novel influenza such as H5N1 and a pandemic may result, with the potential for huge numbers of people to be infected and for many of these to die," Dr Omi warned.

More than 100 million chickens died or were culled in the affected countries in an attempt to contain the spread of the disease. But WHO said it could take years to eliminate influenza A (H5N1) from the environment. Recent findings have indicated that the virus is widespread among poultry (particularly domestic ducks) and wild birds in Asia, and that it may therefore be more difficult to contain completely than was initially thought.

For this reason, WHO emphasizes the need for regional and global efforts to head off a pandemic and to enhance pandemic preparedness. The Western Pacific and South-East Asia Regions of WHO have agreed to strengthen collaboration to ensure a well-coordinated response to future disease outbreaks.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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