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Implications of Avian Influenza - Paula Dobriansky

Social, Economic, and Security Implications of Avian Influenza

Paula J. Dobriansky, Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs
Remarks at the Nixon Center
Washington, DC
June 26, 2006

I would like to thank the Nixon Center for inviting me to speak about the Social, Economic, and Security Impacts of Avian Influenza.

Avian influenza has spread to some 53 countries in Asia, Europe and Africa, led to the deaths of at least 130 and resulted in the culling of millions of birds in an attempt to stop the disease from spreading further. There is no evidence yet of sustained, efficient human-to-human transmission. If this does begin to occur, in the worst-case scenario, it could kill millions of people, cripple economies, bring international trade and travel to a standstill, and jeopardize political stability. Therefore, it is essential from the onset that we examine the social, economic and security implications of a potential influenza pandemic.

Economic Implications

The economic impact of a human pandemic will be significant, though predictions on how significant are still very uncertain. The severity of a pandemic, and thus the severity of economic impact, will depend on its attack and fatality rates, its duration, transparency of governments, preparedness of health care systems, and many other factors.

A study by the Australia's Lowry Institute for International Policy concluded that a mild pandemic could lead to 1.5 million human deaths globally. While a severe pandemic could bring losses of global economic output at $4.4 trillion – a global GDP decline of 12% – throwing the U.S. and world into a deep recession.

The economic impact will be felt in several ways: the most direct is the economic cost of sickness, death, medical care, and the spread of the disease. However, absenteeism will reduce economic activity as people are asked to stay at home to care for relatives or prevent the spread of the disease, and could even lead to the disruption of vital government services.

Although these costs in a worst-case scenario would be staggering, the indirect costs from smaller human outbreaks or even simply outbreaks among animals that result from perceptions of personal insecurity or uncertainty can have an enormous effect. We learned that lesson from the SARS outbreak. SARS resulted in approximately 700 deaths worldwide; the economic impact because of the decline in travel, tourism, and delayed investment that accompanied the outbreak in East Asia, Australia, and Canada, is estimated at $40 billion.

Trade could be disrupted as transportation systems fail and consumer demand declines. Public fears about imported foods could lead consumers to reject imports or cause governments to implement damaging trade barriers. Trade and transportation disruptions would interrupt critical supply chains for U.S. manufacturing. In addition, government efforts to control the spread of the disease across international borders could exacerbate these effects.

Hit with declining consumer demand, worker shortages, and disruptions to supply of inputs, some companies might be forced to suspend their operations, further deepening the economic cost. Because of the interlinked nature of the global economy, the economic costs in an individual country will be multiplied throughout the global economy.

U.S policies are being developed with these concerns in mind. For example, as we finalize general policies related to border security, the United States has made clear that closing borders in the event of an outbreak is a last option. Such an action would not likely decrease the total number of illnesses or deaths. And it would have a significant impact, interrupt delivery of essential services, and disrupt substantial cross border commerce.

Social Ramifications

Recessions in the hardest-hit countries, combined with trade disruptions and panic, and the flight of capital to safe havens, such as the U.S. and Europe, could threaten both financial stability and the social fabric. Economic impacts and fear could intensify social tensions in individual countries. For example, widespread panic could lead to discrimination (or even violence) against ethnic, religious minorities. Nations or populations within nations could use animal or human outbreaks to exacerbate ethnic, political or economic tensions.

For these reasons in particular, transparency and communication are vital. The U.S. is supporting public communication campaigns in 46 countries to help people understand avian and pandemic influenza and how to respond and protect oneself from infection.

Security Implications

The combination of panic, economic decline, and reduced government capacity to maintain order could lead to civil unrest and instability. U.S. officials and non-governmental experts agree that two of the greatest challenges to mounting an effective response in the event of a pandemic include:

1. Maintaining commerce and financial infrastructure to prevent the disruption of economic activity and the delivery of critical goods and services. Such disruptions have the potential to lead to panic and civil unrest, an increase in criminal activity -- including human trafficking and black market activities, drastic movements of people seeking employment and resources, and an overwhelming strain on the rule of law.

2. Maintaining effective and efficient communications. Consistent and factual messaging and reliable communications systems are essential to prevent panic among the population, and ensure that assistance is delivered where and when it is needed.

Progress to Date

For these reasons and others, the Administration is taking this issue very seriously. At the United Nations in September 2005, President Bush announced the International Partnership on Avian and Pandemic Influenza. The most recent meeting of the International Partnership in Vienna, Austria, involved the participation of over 90 countries and 10 international organizations.

In Beijing last January, $1.9 billion was pledged by the international community to strengthen capacity to prepare and respond to avian and pandemic influenza. The United States was the largest contributor. The U.S. has allocated $3.8 billion this year to prepare for a potential influenza outbreak. Of this, we are providing $362 million to support international efforts to prepare, detect and respond to avian and pandemic influenza. The administration has requested an additional $3.4 billion to combat pandemic influenza at home and abroad.

Since no country can successfully combat avian flu alone, the Administration's strategy contains a significant international component. Our framework for international action focuses on three areas: Preparedness and communications; Surveillance and detection; and Response and containment. And since the President launched the Partnership there has been great progress.

On preparedness and communications, nations around the world have organized themselves to develop and implement national plans. The WHO reports that 176 countries have developed plans, including all the nations of the Western Hemisphere. In the United States, we launched our National Strategy on November 1 and last month rolled out the Implementation Plan for the National Strategy.

Nations have devised communication campaigns to build awareness of the threat of avian influenza, to inform their citizens how to act to protect themselves and their communities, and instruct people what to do in the case of a human pandemic. The United States has been pleased to support planning and communication efforts in 46 nations.

Countries have developed domestic stockpiles of medicines, personal protective equipment, and other supplies to respond to avian flu outbreaks and a potential human pandemic. Last month the United States' initial stockpile of anti-virals was positioned in Asia for possible use in the region.

International organizations are expanding their capacity as well. For example, FAO is developing a Crisis Management Center to improve the provision of support to nations responding to animal outbreaks. We have provided over $36 million to support the work of international organizations such as WHO, FAO, and OIE; and also $41 million for international research activities worldwide.

Regarding surveillance and detection, we have also made progress. At the recently held World Health Assembly, countries agreed to accelerate implementation of International Health Regulations. The implementation of these Regulations will strengthen reporting of disease outbreaks.

Many nations are improving their laboratories, diagnostic capacity, and surveillance systems. We are supporting such efforts in more than 25 countries such as Pakistan and Kenya where they now have capacity to test samples for influenza virus resulting in a faster local response.

And we have improved our ability to respond rapidly and contain animal outbreaks. With outbreaks now in 53 nations, we have learned much about the value of planning and rapid reporting. The U.S. has assisted 34 nations in their response efforts by contributing supplies and equipment and we have supported the WHO and FAO teams with technical specialists to strengthen their rapid response efforts.

Avian influenza is not merely a health issue. It is an economic issue, a social issue, and a security issue. As I reiterated at the International Partnership on Avian and Pandemic Influenza last month in Vienna, leaders must continue to encourage their colleagues at home and abroad to be forthcoming with information critical to global response efforts. Providing accurate and timely information to domestic communities and international partners can significantly limit the human, social, and economic and security impacts of an outbreak.

Avian influenza is a global problem that requires a global response in order to protect our families, our communities, our nations, and the world.

Released on July 11, 2006


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