Back to

WHO says not overplaying threat of flu pandemic

GENEVA (Reuters) - The World Health Organization (WHO) denied on Monday it was exaggerating the risk of a human influenza pandemic and called for improved surveillance of birds to ensure early detection of the deadly avian flu virus.

The example of Turkey, where children fell ill almost simultaneously with the first confirmed outbreaks in birds, showed the urgent need for all countries to develop early warning systems, said Lee Jong-Wook, WHO director-general.

The H5N1 virus has killed at least 80 people in six countries since late 2003. Victims contract the virus through close contact with sick birds, but there are fears it could mutate into a form that can pass easily from person to person, sparking a pandemic.

"Concern has been expressed that we are overplaying this threat. We are not," Lee said in an opening speech to the WHO's executive board, holding a week-long meeting in Geneva.

"We can only reduce the devastating human and economic impact of a pandemic if all we all take the threat seriously now and prepare thoroughly. This is a global problem," he said.

The United Nations agency has predicted between two and 7.4 million people could die if a pandemic sweeps the world.

Turkey has reported 21 cases of bird flu, including the deaths of four children, but the WHO says that human cases appear to be winding down there following mass poultry culling and public education campaigns.

WHO experts will help nearby countries deemed "at risk" to assess the situation. These include Syria, Iran, Iraq, as well as Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan.


Unlike in East Asia -- where outbreaks had been detected in poultry well ahead of human cases -- the "unique feature" in Turkey had been "almost no prior warning of infection in poultry", said Lee, a South Korean doctor.

"The Turkey experience demonstrates the dangers poised by avian influenza in birds and the vital importance of surveillance and effective early warning systems," he added.  

A pandemic could arise with little or no warning from the animal side."

The outbreak in Turkey had also shown how fast national authorities, backed by international experts, can move in a health crisis, Lee said. Within a day, samples had been taken from suspect cases and shipped to WHO laboratories in Britain.

"Results were available within 24 hours; 100,000 treatment courses of oseltamavir (Tamiflu) were available were available one day after the first cases were confirmed," he added.

Lee also backed a proposal by several Western countries to bring forward compliance by member states with new International Health Regulations, specifically regarding bird flu.

The rules, agreed last May, cover all health emergencies of international concern. They are mandatory from mid-June 2007, but some states have proposed immediate voluntary compliance on bird flu to share information and clinical samples rapidly.

Reuters 2006. All Rights Reserved.