4 November 2005

Stockpiling Antiviral Medicines Not a Strategy to Fight Avian Flu, Secretary-General Says in Address to Time Global Health Summit

He Stresses Need for More Investment to Monitor, Halt Its Spread; Cooperation in Research; Use of Modern Technology

NEW YORK, 3 November (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the text of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's address at the Time Global Health Summit, in New York today, 3 November:

I am glad to have this opportunity to speak to you today.  Let me applaud the organizers of this three-day event for bringing together such eminent leaders and experts around some of the key health issues of our time.  For working to raise awareness and stimulate actions to be taken by all sectors of society -- Governments and civil society, the private sector and academics.

Gatherings such as yours reflect a welcome understanding of the connection between human health and all the challenges facing us.  That is something I have been deeply conscious of ever since I first started my international career.  Some of you may not know it, but my first job was actually in the World Health Organization -- a long, long time ago, just as the Salk oral vaccine against polio was being introduced, 18 years before we were able to eliminate smallpox worldwide, and a good 20 years before the word AIDS entered our vocabulary.

Over the decades that have passed since then, the connections between human health, development and security have become increasingly clear.  At the World Summit in September, leaders took away with them the message that we cannot have security without development, we cannot have development without security, and we can have neither without respect for human rights and the rule of law.

At the same time, globalization has brought home to us that today's health challenges respect no boundaries.  Governments everywhere have had to accept that every country is at risk.

In the past few months and weeks, that realization has been rendered even more acute by the spread of avian flu.  Day by day, the alarm bells seem to ring louder, as new outbreaks are reported in yet another part of the globe.  The growing concern is coupled with deep uncertainty -- a sense of uncertainty that makes it impossible to predict with any precision the future course of the disease; but not one that allows us to play down the risks.

We do not know yet whether the current strain of avian flu will cause a human pandemic.

But we do know what a human pandemic is.

We do know the tolls taken by previous pandemics -- from the flu of 1918 to the AIDS crisis of our time.

We do know what happens when millions of people die, and millions more are infected.  When health systems are overburdened and overwhelmed.  When families, communities and whole societies are devastated.  When transport and trade, education and other services are disrupted or cease to function.  When the economic and social progress of nations risks being reversed.

And whatever we may not know about the future course of H5N1, we do know this:  once human-to-human transmission has been established, we would have only a matter of weeks to lock down the spread before it spins out of control.

That is why the international community must take action now.  We must rally around a set of priorities for handling this potential crisis, and agree on measures to implement them.  We must be honest and admit to ourselves that merely stockpiling antiviral medicines does not constitute a strategy to fight avian flu.

First, let us start by addressing the spread of bird flu itself.  We must invest more to monitor and halt the spread that currently seems to be reaching a new country almost every day.  That means strengthening veterinary infrastructure that is currently underfunded, so that disease outbreaks can be detected at source.  And it means compensating farmers and families fairly and properly for the culling of their birds which, for so many communities around the world, are a desperately important source of economic security.  And if they are not compensated, they are not going to tell you when their birds are sick.

Second, we must help people accept that the current strain of bird flu challenges a way of life that has been with us for centuries -- that of people living in close proximity with their animals.  I myself come from Ghana, a country where families and their farmyard animals, children and chickens, often coexist in one happy community.  Hard as it will be, we must find ways of structuring that coexistence, or we will never be able to stop viruses migrating from animals to us -- and to our children.

Third, we must prepare for the impact of a human pandemic by identifying what is needed to keep communities and countries running, should our fears materialize.  That means working through what may happen, developing contingency plans and making advance commitments -- governmental and intergovernmental -- on how we will keep essential services going, from transport to trade, from security to health services and systems themselves.

Fourth, we must work to ensure access to antiviral medicines for all who will need them.  That means exceptional efforts to scale up production; it means ensuring availability for people in the developing world, who currently risk going without; it means sharing the necessary science and technology with those who have the required capacity to produce.

Fifth, we must ensure transparency and cooperation on science and research, especially in the development of a vaccine.  That means as much openness as possible among Governments in the sharing of specimens and information; it means overcoming individual national interests to work collectively in our common cause; it means brokering scientific cooperation and harnessing global inventiveness and expertise on an unprecedented scale.  I was pleased to hear President Bush describe on Tuesday how the United States will make use of modern cell-based technology in developing novel influenza vaccines.

Sixth, we must make full use of modern technology and culture to communicate vital facts about the virus, and what people can do about it.  If other pandemics have taught us anything, it is surely the lesson that silence is death.  That means using all channels at our disposal to disseminate information -- from radio and television, to e-mail and mobile phone text messaging.  If I may quote Mike Leavitt, the US Health Secretary:  "Flu virus is a networked enemy.  We must fight it with a networked army."  That is our challenge.

Finally, we need political leadership and energy at the highest level.  We need clear commitment from the top to ensure coordination of the response in every country, bringing in all parts of Government, civil society and the private sector. 

Already, we have seen courageous leadership in many countries, triggering a number of promising national and regional initiatives -- from the European Union to the African Union; from ASEAN Plus Three to the US International Partnership, which President Bush launched at the United Nations in September, and outlined further on Tuesday.

The United Nations family is keen to work with all of these partners, not by imposing added structures, but by supporting existing efforts and helping to ensure that they support each other.

In the United Nations itself, we have set up a coordination mechanism, bringing together key players such as the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization with the World Bank and other development agencies.  Our first mission is to track the crucial issues and trends, identify priorities, and encourage entities within and outside the system to work together.  We will engage extensively with other stakeholders, including civil society and the private sector.

The UN System Senior Coordinator for Avian and Human influenza, Dr. David Nabarro, who is here with me today, will provide a point of contact for Governments and interested parties.  For my part, I shall keep myself closely informed and intervene as and when necessary.  And I am eagerly awaiting the outcome of next week's planning meeting in Geneva on avian and human pandemic influenza, which will be co-hosted by the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Bank and the World Organization for Animal Health.

One thing we know above all:  a threat like a flu pandemic cannot be addressed by one organization, one group of countries, one sector or one profession.  It presents us with an extraordinary collective challenge, and it calls for an extraordinary collective effort.

When the flu does come, we will be tested on our ability to work together to provide assistance so that the majority of those at risk -- including the most vulnerable -- stay alive and well.  When the flu does come, that will be the test we must be sure to pass.

Let us prepare for it carefully, and let us prepare for it now.  I hope I can count on the support of all of you in that mission.

Thank you very much.

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