World Health Assembly hears warning on avian influenza threat

The 58th World Health Assembly heard a warning from Dr. LEE Jong-wook, Director-General of the World Health Organization, on what he called the "most serious known health threat the world is facing today, which is avian influenza."

He said "The timing cannot be predicted, but rapid international spread is certain once the susceptible virus appears. This is a grave danger for all people in all countries. We can get some idea of its magnitude from the Spanish influenza pandemic in 1918, which killed between 20 and 50 million people."

Though scientists in 1918 "had very little idea of what was happening until it was too late," Dr. Lee said, today, "by good fortune we have had time - and still have time - to prepare for the next global pandemic, because the conditions for it have appeared before the outbreak itself. We must do everything in our power to maximize that preparedness. When this event occurs, our response has got to be immediate, comprehensive and effective."

In his address to the Assembly, Dr. Lee also said, "The capacity to respond to health threats quickly with well-coordinated action is indispensable for public health in the twenty-first century. That capacity is growing rapidly. WHO started the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network five years ago. With the technical institutions of Member States and the WHO collaborating centers, the Network has responded to more than 50 major disease outbreaks. There are now 130 institutions in the Network, with more and more from developing countries. Major demands placed on it include those of avian influenza, Ebola, Marburg, meningitis, myocarditis and plague. The Network is also involved in setting up the early warning systems being established following the tsunami disaster."

Two health ministers from the Americas won key posts at the Assembly, as Uruguay's Dr. Miguel Fernandez Galeano was elected vice president of the World Health Assembly and Dr. Jerome Walcott of Barbados was elected chairman of Committee B. The President of the Assembly is Spain's Health Minister, Elena Salgado.

In another topic, The Health Metrics Network (HMN), a new global partnership to improve public health decision-making through better health information was launched today at the Assembly. A partnership of countries, development agencies, foundations, global health initiatives and technical experts, the network aims to increase the availability and use of timely, reliable health information, helping fund and improve core health information systems in developing countries.

"In some areas of the world, even basic facts such as a person's birth, their death and cause of death are not recorded," said Dr. Lee. "The Health Metrics Network will work to close this gap by helping countries improve their ability to gather this vital health information. Accurate data is critical to identifying problems and implementing effective solutions for people's health."

Dr. Richard Klausner, Executive Director, Global Health, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said "Health information is not simply an end in itself but provides the basis for better decision-making. Good data, quality reporting and tracking, thoughtful analysis and consistent health information systems will enable decision-makers to make informed and therefore better decisions on disease control and human development."

"We have agreed to better coordinate and align our investments in the development of health information systems in accordance with the broader development agenda including the Millennium Development Goals," according to a statement endorsed by the HMN partners.

The network has received an initial grant of US$ 50 million over seven years from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and additional contributions from other donors including the Department for International Development (U.K.), U.S. Agency for International Development and the Danish International Development Agency.

Low- and middle-income countries will be eligible to apply for grants of up to US$ 500 000 for health information system strengthening and can call on network partners for technical assistance. By 2011, the network expects that at least 80 countries will be able to report on agreed, standardized global health goals and indicators in a timely and sound manner.

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