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WASHINGTON, Sep 19, 2005 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- A World Health Organization official is urging nations around the world to prepare for a pandemic of bird flu, and he also warned of the threat posed by new emerging diseases.
"While we still have a window of opportunity, we must do everything we can to avert an influenza pandemic, as we simultaneously prepare for a worse-case scenario," Shigeru Omi, the WHO's regional director for the Western Pacific, said at a meeting in Noumea, New Caledonia, on Monday that was attended by 100 health officials -- including some health ministers.
"Avian influenza and the earlier outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) are not the only emerging diseases we can expect to confront in this new century," Omi said.
A strain of bird flu known as H5N1 has been circulating in several Asian nations since 2003 and has killed 57 people. Disease experts worldwide think the virus could adapt to humans and cause a worldwide outbreak with the potential to kill millions.
Recent developments, including the infection of bird flocks in Kazakhstan and Russia, have indicated the virus is spreading westward from Asia. Over the weekend, Indonesian officials said they had closed the zoo in Jakarta for three weeks after the disease was detected in 19 birds there.
So far, Omi said, the virus has not become efficient at spreading effectively from person to person, but scientists report in the Oct. 1 issue of the Journal of Infectious Diseases that other strains of bird flu may pose a concern.
A team, led by researchers from the Instituto Superiore di Sanita in Rome, Italy, reported for the first time that bird-flu strains known as low-pathogenic avian influenza can infect people. It was previously thought only highly-pathogenic strains, such as H5N1, could cross over and infect humans. The findings suggest there is a greater chance of bird flu strains mixing with human flu and generating a novel virus that efficiently infects people and spreads around the world.
"Our findings highlight the risk of the emergence of a potentially pandemic strain, as a result of reassortment of avian and contemporaneously circulating human strains during outbreaks of avian influenza caused by (low-pathogenic avian influenza) viruses," the researchers wrote.
To keep bird flu contained, Omi said countries that have already detected the disease in their flocks should strengthen their laboratory capacity to monitor for the disease. They also should slaughter infected poultry and immunize healthy birds. Omi also advised incorporating practices that minimize the possibility of transmitting the virus to different species.
Governments should stockpile anti-viral medications and make sure they are located in areas that are most likely to suffer a flu outbreak, Omi said. He also urged intensifying efforts to develop vaccines against bird flu and recommended countries make preparations to deal with the enormous economic impact that could result from a pandemic.
U.S. officials said last week they had contracted with Sanofi Pasteur for $100 million worth of a vaccine still under development that is designed to protect against bird flu. The officials also said they were stockpiling GlaxoSmithKline's Relenza, an anti-viral medication shown to be effective against bird flu.
Critics, however, said the government's plan was inadequate and their goal of having enough vaccine and anti-viral for 20 million people was not nearly enough to ensure the nation was prepared to deal with a pandemic.
Omi said WHO has established an action plan for responding to bird flu in the Asian Pacific that will cost $160 million. The agency plans to hold a meeting sometime this year to generate funding to fund the plan.
To help deal with emerging diseases, the WHO has developed a plan for the Western Pacific and South-East Asia regions to improve surveillance and preparedness for infectious diseases. The agency also has issued new requirements for member states for verification and notification of public-health situations that pose international concern.
Copyright 2005 by United Press International.