26 July 2006

Agencies Endorse Plan to Inform, Educate on Avian Flu, Risks of Human Pandemic in Americas

WASHINGTON, D.C., 25 July -- A new push to communicate on the threats of avian influenza and a possible human pandemic was launched today by representatives of international agencies, at the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) headquarters in Washington.

Highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza has yet not been reported in birds or humans anywhere in the Americas.  But, "we need to be prepared for H5N1 to enter the Western Hemisphere, whether it is through wild birds or commerce, or a combination of the two.  We should take this interval to get prepared," said David Nabarro, Senior United Nations System Coordinator for Avian and Human Influenza, in a message taped for the meeting.

Participants in the meeting -- including experts on human health, animal health and communications from key United Nations agencies and other partners -- endorsed an Inter-Agency Communication Framework for Avian and Human Influenza in the Americas.  The framework sets forth a common approach for communicating with the media, Government officials, the private sector and the general public, as part of ongoing efforts to prevent and prepare for avian and pandemic flu.

"All of us are aware that the risk of an avian influenza outbreak is very real," said Jim Butler, Deputy Director-General of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA).  "We have to act immediately and develop appropriate strategies for communicating the risks involved."

Recent public opinion research in Latin America and the Caribbean shows poor understanding and low public awareness of the risks of avian and pandemic influenza, and widespread scepticism about the likelihood of H5N1 mutating into a novel human virus that could spark a pandemic.  Few people in the region see the problems as requiring priority attention.

But, experts at the meeting agreed that avian influenza could reach the Americas at any time.  To date, H5N1 has been detected in birds in some 45 countries in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East, spreading to 30 of those countries in just the past six months.  The disease has prompted the death or culling of more than 200 million birds, and has cost $10 billion in economic losses in Asia alone.  In 10 countries, the virus has infected humans, causing 231 cases and 133 deaths, as of 20 July.

"We must take advantage of the experience of other regions to inform and prepare our own region," PAHO Director Mirta Roses told the Washington meeting.

The arrival of H5N1 in birds in Latin America and the Caribbean would represent a serious threat to the poultry industry.  The region produces some 16.1 million tons of poultry meat and 5.4 million tons of eggs each year, according to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).  Major outbreaks of H5N1 could cost the region some $3.7 billion -- 3.5 per cent of agricultural output -- according to IDB, not including the costs of compensating farmers for sacrificing birds.

H5N1 would also have a major impact on food sufficiency in the region.  The effect would be greatest on the poor, since poultry is a relatively cheap source of protein.

An even greater threat than bird flu, however, is that the H5N1 virus could mutate into a strain that is easily transmissible between humans.  This could happen anywhere in the world and would likely spread rapidly, sparking an influenza pandemic that could claim millions of lives and cause major economic and social disruption.

Experts say the farther the avian virus spreads geographically, the more chances it has to interact with new human and animal hosts and to acquire the ability to transmit easily between humans.  Therefore, the best chance for preventing a human influenza pandemic is by controlling the disease at its source, that is, in birds.  A key part of this effort consists of effective risk and outbreak communication.

Among the specific goals of the regional communication effort were to build trust in animal and public health officials; work with Governments to bolster communication capacity and encourage transparency; disseminate messages on public health and safe individual behaviours; and make available free communication tools for use by all.

Participants in the two-day meeting included representatives of the PAHO/World Health Organization, United Nations Children's Fund, World Organization for Animal Health, Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture, World Bank, IDB, Regional International Agency for Animal and Plant Health, United Nations Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean, and the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.  The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services also participated.


-- "Bird Flu" - Avian influenza, which most commonly affects birds and only rarely infects humans.

-- Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) - Avian flu that kills most of the birds it infects.  Only H5 and H7 strains are highly pathogenic in birds.  Because it has spread so far, has infected humans and has shown a high mortality rate in the few humans it has infected, H5N1 is currently the HPAI virus of greatest concern.

-- Low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI) - Avian flu that is fairly common and not highly lethal to birds.  LPAI can, under certain field conditions, evolve into HPAI.

-- "Pandemic Flu" - Human influenza caused by a novel virus to which the world's population has little or no immunity, and which results in large outbreaks in various regions of the world.

For more information, contact Robert Cohen at .

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