Director-General

Speech on human pandemic influenza

Singapore
12 October 2005

Will there be a human influenza pandemic? There will. Currently the H5N1 avian influenza virus is the most likely candidate virus for the next influenza pandemic. There is only one condition missing - a virus that is rapidly transmitted from person to person.

When will it come? We do not know, but the new pandemic virus could appear anytime.

What is the expected political and social cost? It will be huge. No Government or Head of State can afford to be caught off guard. However, Singapore has lived through SARS. You have shown your ability to respond dynamically to evolving situations, and to make a success of disease control. Your pandemic preparedness plans are excellent. We are facing a challenge which is potentially much bigger than SARS. There were between 40 and 50 million deaths in the 1918 flu pandemic. The influenza pandemics in the 1950s and 1960s were considered as mild, but they killed 3 million people.

What will the economic cost be? The economic cost of SARS has been estimated at $30 billion. Remember - there were fewer than 800 deaths from SARS throughout the whole outbreak. It is essential that good communications are in place so people know what to do. The more advance preparation you do, the more you protect against illness, death and destructive panic.

Where will it start? The pandemic is most likely to start in one of the countries in this region, because they have experienced sustained outbreaks of avian flu for three years. We think that the pandemic flu virus in humans is most likely to be a mutation of the avian flu virus H5N1.

Who has prevented the pandemic from starting so far? Small farmers have made huge sacrifices by culling their chickens when farms were infected. They were under-compensated: sometimes they were not compensated at all. Theirs is the single biggest contribution to the prevention of a human flu pandemic. The issue of compensation is directly linked with an effective surveillance system. It will make farmers come forward to report unusual events in their farms.

What is needed? How do we reduce the risks? Every country must have a national pandemic control plan. Every country needs a communications strategy, to educate the public about pandemic flu: what it is, and what it is not. Every government must be able to respond rapidly and effectively when the time comes.

Role for the business community: The business community can be directly supportive of these preparedness and communications plans. You can work out corporate preparedness programmes. You can be directly supportive of your communities by making sure that all business employees and their families are well informed about the situation as it emerges. Everyone should know what to do, and how they will be helped to cope. Good communication is key .

We need early warning. There was no advance warning for the three pandemics of the previous century. We have to keep a look out for a change in the pattern of human flu cases. We must detect human to human transmission at the earliest stage possible. Each country - each community - needs public health early warning systems that work.. This means improving surveillance for disease in animals and humans, field investigations, diagnostic support, and incentives for people to report.

We must pounce on human flu outbreaks with medicines and quarantine measures. We want to contain the pandemic, or at least slow its spread, at the earliest possible moment.

We must find ways to help poorer countries. Each country should have access to antiviral medication, whether procured independently, or provided through international collaboration in a stockpile. WHO has a stockpile of 30 million Tamiflu capsules through an agreement with Roche. They will be used to strike the initial outbreak.

International collaboration is essential for success. WHO, the Food and Agriculture Organization and OIE are already working together closely. Each country now has guidelines for national control plans. This is a moment to act.

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