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WHO: Potential Highly Lethal Flu Pandemic Looms

UN Agency Convenes Experts To Prepare For Potential Highly Lethal Flu Pandemic

Warning that a highly lethal human flu pandemic could occur at any time despite recent measures taken against a bird flu outbreak in Asia, the United Nations health agency announced today that it will bring together more than 100 health experts in Geneva next week to prepare a global battle plan to fight such a scenario.

"As long as avian and human flu viruses are circulating in the environment, the ingredients for a human pandemic still exist. When the next pandemic emerges, we will be able to respond properly only if we prepare properly," the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Lee Jong-wook, said.

While poultry culling and other measures may have reduced the likelihood of a human influenza strain spreading widely as a result of the current bird flu epidemic in Asia, experts believe that because these outbreaks come in cycles, an influenza pandemic among people must still be expected at some time in the future, WHO said.

"Ongoing outbreaks reinforce the historical experience that elimination of the (Asian bird flu) virus will likely take years. During that time, a random mutation of the virus or a combination of avian influenza with human influenza could produce a strain which moves easily from person to person and produces high mortality," the agency added. "Such a random event could occur at any time."

The meeting, from 16 to 18 March, will assess the current situation and analyze possible public health measures before and during a pandemic. "Slowing the spread of a pandemic and reducing its impact will require planning, preparation and global coordination," WHO said.

The specialists invited to the meeting are experts in public health, health policy, hospital management, drugs and vaccines, infection control measures, disease modelling, and risk communications. They will discuss the best use of limited supplies of vaccines and antivirals, as well as surveillance strat monitor its spread.

Other topics include possible travel recommendations and early detection of changes in influenza subtypes.

Over the past two months, more than 100 million birds have either died in the Asian bird flu epidemic or been culled, while there have been 33 confirmed cases of the disease's transmission to humans, 22 of them fatal.

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