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WHO urges Member States to prepare for a pandemic

WHO urges Member States to be prepared for a pandemic

Fifty-seventh session of the Regional Committee for the Western Pacific
18-22 September 2006, Auckland, New Zealand

Auckland, New Zealand, 19 September 2006—The increasing threat from emerging infectious diseases makes it imperative that countries prepare for rapid response and containment activities and for a worst-case scenario such as an influenza pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) advised today.

In addition to taking urgent steps to prepare for an immediate response to emerging infectious diseases, such as avian influenza and SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), public health officials also must focus on the mid- and long-term battle against these diseases, the international health agency said.

Many countries and areas do not have the required national and local core capacities in place, such as rapid response and containment activities, to avoid serious health threats, which have the potential to cause substantial economic and social disruption.

"Many health systems were undermanned and under-resourced when SARS struck, causing great human suffering, enormous fear and staggering economic losses," said Dr Richard Nesbit, WHO acting Regional Director for the Western Pacific.

In response to these needs, the Regional Committee for the Western Pacific, WHO's governing body in the Western Pacific Region, today endorsed the recommendations of the Technical Advisory Group on the Implementation of the Asia Pacific Strategy for Emerging Diseases (APSED). The Regional Committee, composed of Member States in the Western Pacific, is meeting here to review WHO's work in the Region and to plan for the future.

APSED serves as a road map for countries and areas to strengthen core capacities for effective preparedness, prevention, early detection and rapid response to emerging infectious diseases. The Strategy was jointly developed by the WHO Regional Offices for South-East Asia and the Western Pacific.

The Regional Committee also urged Member States to use the Strategy as a stepping stone towards the effective implementation of the revised International Heath Regulations, also known as IHR (2005). These regulations set out new obligations for the notification, verification, assessment of and response to significant public health threats. Although the IHR (2005) does not enter into force until June 2007, countries and areas in the Region have been requested to comply immediately and on a voluntary basis with provisions relevant to the risk posed by avian influenza and pandemic human influenza.

A few months after WHO declared the containment of SARS in July 2003, an outbreak of avian influenza A(H5N1) hit Asia and has since spread to Africa, Europe and the Middle East, an indication that the virus continues to present a threat. To date, more than 40 countries have reported outbreaks in either wild or domestic birds, or both.

The continuing threat of emerging diseases means that WHO Member States and the international community must mobilize resources necessary for strengthening country capacity, Dr Nesbit said.

"In the early stages of a potential pandemic, it may be possible to stop or delay the spread of the virus by swiftly implementing pandemic influenza rapid response and containment measures,"
Dr Nesbit said. "If rapid interventions are successful, the severe adverse health, social and economic consequences expected to result from a pandemic might be prevented."

The window of opportunity for action is very narrow because rapid globalization, urbanization, and increasing cross-border travel and trade can aid the spread of infectious disease. Dr Nesbit said: "Countries and areas must therefore prepare for such an eventuality and develop operational capacities and coordinating mechanisms to swiftly implement rapid containment measures, which also require close regional and international coordination and collaboration."


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