Meeting on avian influenza and pandemic human influenza

Opening remarks

Geneva, Switzerland
7 November 2005

On behalf of WHO and our co-hosts of this meeting: FAO, OIE, and the World Bank, I thank you for coming.

I would like to express my appreciation to the world leaders who have demonstrated their commitment to addressing the threats of avian and human pandemic influenza.

On the 31st of August President Jacques Chirac graciously invited a delegation from WHO to the Elysée Palace to share his concerns. Merci beaucoup, Monsieur Le President.

On the 13th of September ASEAN Heads of State met in New York and discussed this issue.

On the following day President George Bush launched the International Partnership on Avian and Pandemic Influenza during the UN General Assembly. This was followed by the first meeting of the Partnership in Washington DC in early October. I also acknowledge the leadership of President Bush in personally launching the US national plan last week.

Our thanks also go to Prime Minister Paul Martin of Canada for hosting the Ministerial meeting in Ottawa on Global Pandemic Influenza Readiness last month.

The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation countries, the European Union, and the UN Economic and Social Council all recently held special sessions on avian flu and human pandemic influenza.

Each of these meetings has contributed to the growing international consensus and shaped the agenda for our meeting this week.

I also want particularly to recognize the farmers who sacrificed their infected flocks for slaughter. Theirs has been the single greatest contribution - not only to controlling avian flu but possibly to delaying the emergence of a human pandemic virus. They face a further hazard. Their limited income is especially vulnerable to trade restrictions, or consumer anxiety about the safety of eating chicken or eggs. This reminds us that we must keep people well informed of the facts about flu.

I warmly welcome too the many representatives of the media who have joined us today. You play a vital role, as good communication is key to the success of our efforts.

First, let me clarify the difference between seasonal flu, avian flu, and human pandemic influenza. In the northern hemisphere we are now entering the peak period for seasonal flu. Every year, we face a different flu virus. Every year a flu vaccine is developed against that specific strain. I had a flu shot last week.

Bird flu. We have been experiencing a relentless spread of avian flu. Migratory birds, as they move around the world to seasonal breeding and feeding grounds, are infecting domestic flocks around the world. More than 150 million birds, mostly chickens, have died or been culled. Sixty-three out of 124 infected humans have died since December 2003. The economic impact of this has already exceeded 10 billion dollars. Human pandemic influenza. There is no outbreak of human pandemic influenza anywhere in the world today. However, the signs are clear that it is coming. The 1918 pandemic resulted from a changed avian flu virus. Since its appearance in Hong Kong in 1997, highly pathogenic H5N1 avian flu has spread to 15 countries in Asia, and Europe.

It is only a matter of time before an avian flu virus - most likely H5N1 - acquires the ability to be transmitted from human to human, sparking the outbreak of human pandemic influenza.

We don't know when this will happen. But we do know that it will happen.

This is the time to build global consensus. This is the time for every country to prepare their national action plan - and act on it.

In the pandemics of 1958 and 1968, a combined total of 3 million people died. Those were considered to be mild pandemics.

In 2003, in the SARS epidemic, fewer than 800 people died. Yet the economic consequences have been assessed at more than 30 billion dollars worldwide. It was a major social, political, economic and health event.

If we are unprepared, the next pandemic will cause incalculable human misery. Both directly from the loss of human life, and indirectly through its widespread impact on security. No society would be exempt. No economy would be left unscathed.

This is a grim picture. But from the series of international meetings has come a truly global awareness of the importance of pandemic preparedness, and the role of international cooperation in responding to the pandemic threat.

We start this meeting on a firm footing with agreement on our core mutual concerns.

In the next three days, we must make decisions on immediate action in four broad areas:

1. How to prevent and contain the spread of H5N1 virus among birds and from birds to humans. - Some countries need urgent support in this.

2. How to increase country capacity in surveillance, early detection, diagnosis and reporting of cases - both animal and human. - Information sharing and transparency will be essential. Thanks are due to those who have already been so open in sharing their virus samples. - Also, compensation for farmers whose flocks are culled is essential for reliable notification of outbreaks.

3. We must decide how to approach policies on research, development and production of vaccines and antivirals, reviewing manufacturing capacity, and access issues. - For example, operational plans for rapid deployment of antivirals must be developed and tested. - Progress must be made in fast-tracking development and production of promising vaccines.

4. We must decide how best to communicate both the risks and the positive areas for action by all communities, including strategies for business and societal continuity. - Preparedness plans need to be written, rehearsed and tested. Good communication, throughout society, using all available resources, is essential to put populations on guard and help people to act responsibly.

These four broad areas stem from the sequence of meetings that have been held recently. They are agreed.

The difficulty will come in finding which are the very best interventions in each case. Whatever action is decided must pass a vital test. It must have a benefit to the local community, the country, or world, that goes beyond responding to avian flu, or to preparing for a human pandemic. Long-term, we must know that we are working to improve national, regional and global capacity for public health.

I hand over now to our chairman for this morning, to take us forward.

Thank you very much.